August 16, 2011 | General

Fighting a Different Battle – Sanitation (Afghanistan)

BioCycle August 2011, Vol. 52, No. 8, p. 58
Although there is an obvious lack of sanitary and solid waste management infrastructure, gradual steps to improve conditions are noticeable in more urbanized regions.
Chuck Henry and Brian McCarthy

ALMOST one-third of the people in the world have no sanitary facilities, as is well-described in Rose George’s book, The Big Necessity. We have been to and worked in a number of developing countries in the last dozen years and witnessed a wide disparity of sanitary conditions. However, what we are encountering in our work in Afghanistan greatly typifies the challenges faced globally.
Historically, the toilet in an Afghan house was a small stepout from one of the walls. Solids were dropped down a hole, while liquids (urine and anal washing) went another way. Periodically a person would walk by with a wheelbarrow and scoop up the solids from an opening at the base of the house and take it to the field.
Over the last decade there has been a pervasive desire to be more like industrialized countries with flush toilets. Afghanistan is in transition from old methods to new, but lacks the infrastructure and institutionalization to make it happen. Septic tanks are being constructed, but both human solids and liquids are invariably found in the streets’ ditches.
A number of agencies are involved in making a change to human waste sanitation practices in Afghanistan. National agencies include Afghan Urban Water Supply and Sewerage Corporation (AUWSSC) and the Ministry of Rural Reconstruction and Development (MRRD) through their Rural Water, Sanitation and Irrigation Program (RuWatSIP). These agencies receive input from the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA). There are also numerous technical advisory groups, such as the Water and Sanitation Group (WSG), and then the donor agencies, in particular the extensive US AID programs.
The authors have been working on sanitation and solid waste management primarily in Southern Afghanistan. In none of the cities that we have worked in are there adequate solid waste management facilities or sewage collection and treatment systems, with the exception of most of the coalition military bases. None of these provincial capital cities have wastewater treatment plants or adequate solid waste management facilities in use, with the exception of most of the coalition military bases. This unfortunate fact includes the two largest cities in Afghanistan, Kabul and Kandahar, each with over a million people.

Sanitation Capacity
Providing sanitation infrastructure is not a new activity for international aid entities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). For instance, two of our target cities actually have wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) built by international donor agencies, but neither has been used. Since cities have no sewers that lead to the treatment plants, sewage is collected in holding (conservancy) tanks that are theoretically pumped monthly, with planned emptying into the treatment plants. The connection from tank to treatment doesn’t occur. Rather the closest (and cheapest) place for disposing sewage is the river.
Numerous examples exist throughout the world of failed wastewater treatment plants due to broken parts, inadequate O&M training or lack of operational funds. In Afghanistan the overriding challenge is first getting the wastewater to the WWTP, often relying on privately operated pumper trucks. Utilizing the treatment plants may require providing easier access, incentives, enforcement, or a combination. The key is to make it preferential for pumpers to unload at the WWTP versus a river.
If a WWTP becomes operational, treated effluent could be used for fertigation of trees that can be grown and harvested for firewood. This achieves beneficial use of both the water and nutrients. And revenue can be realized by harvesting and selling the firewood (firewood reportedly sells for about $1 for 10 lbs). Where a WWTP doesn’t exist, it opens the opportunity for either composting toilets and greywater systems, or a system involving septic tank-bioreactor-subsurface irrigation of plant beds.

Solid Waste
With one of the lowest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the world – estimated at $1,000 per capita in 2010 – one would expect the characteristics and quantities of municipal solid waste in Afghan cities to be far different from that in industrialized countries. With their limited purchasing power, there is a correspondingly limited quantity and type of goods in the waste stream. A variety of estimates suggest that per capita MSW production is approximately 0.4kg/day. Of that, almost half (45%) is inert soils and floor sweepings and ash, and over a third (35%) is estimated as organic/biodegradable wastes. Plastic is 15 percent; Paper products are 3 percent. The primary reason for relatively small amounts of paper and even plastics is due to the practice of burning them for heating or cooking.
Historically, waste with high organic and inert material content was of little concern, even though it piled outside the household along the street and would inevitably be mixed with some amount of human waste. Aesthetically, there was little noticeable impact to the community as the wastes that were periodically transported to and accumulated on vacant land decomposed quickly in the dry heat to a relatively unobtrusive mass. These wastes have accumulated over many years.
Where municipal capability existed, these accumulated waste piles would be collected in an ad-hoc manner, transported to the local dry riverbed, and deposited. With spring snow melts these materials would be washed downstream, and, given the either inert or fairly stable organic nature, would add reasonably beneficial matter to the flood plains.
Since 2002, however, the economic structure of the country has changed to a free market economy and foreign aid money has flooded in. With the population and economy of the urban regions of Southern Afghanistan growing, general consumption habits have changed. Packaging, batteries, medical wastes and other goods are entering the waste stream in ever increasing quantities. Waste management and related municipal services have not kept pace with this change. No constructed or sustainably managed waste disposal or treatment sites exist within the region; disposal in rivers remains the predominant practice. The end result is ever-increasing amounts of packaging and nonbiodegradable wastes entering the rivers and degrading the quality of water and land downstream.

Informal Recycling Activities
Several recent developments are starting to improve the situation. Informal recycling activities have grown, with the majority of hard plastic and metal materials removed by waste pickers at the community bin and city waste disposal sites. Second, the community is becoming far more cognizant of the corresponding visual and health impacts associated with improper, ad-hoc disposal of these new wastes. Local government is recognizing the need for alternate and increased waste management activities though funds are limited to provide such services, and the willingness of the population to pay is not there until they see a service in operation.
Similar to sanitation efforts, many Afghan governmental agencies are fighting the MSW battle – the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing (MUD), NEPA, the Ministry of Agriculture (responsible for all land outside the population centers), the particular municipality, and the provincial governor. Financial assistance is provided by the international community to local governments. Key elements include planning for MSW service and management, and development of a sustainable revenue generation capability to finance continued services.
One example is a project that is assisting a major city municipality in removing thousands of cubic meters of accumulated waste debris from the city. These wastes are being transported to an interim disposal site outside the city. Final disposition of the wastes are slated for a future constructed and managed waste disposal and treatment site. This project has introduced the practice of sifting the collected waste materials and selling the recovered soils to local farmers; they contain high concentrations of stable organic matter (compost) from the decomposed food and human wastes, along with earth floor sweepings and cooking fire ash. This is a new practice in Afghanistan and current production cannot keep up with demand for the product.
The sifting also separates out other recoverable items such as aluminum cans and plastics not captured by the waste pickers. Recoverable products can be sold to local merchants who bulk the materials and sell them to recycling plants in Pakistan. This establishes a sustainable revenue source for either for the municipality or potential private sector entities involved in waste management services.
In spite of the challenges presented by existing conditions, cultural practices and political unrest, progress is being made. It is the intention of the wide number of programs we have mentioned to work with national, provincial and municipal governments and community groups to bring change to the integrity of sanitary services and build confidence in the capabilities of the government. While there is certainly a long way to go, the planned activities – particularly in waste collection and treatment of both human and municipal waste – are a solid foundation towards sustainable management practices.

Dr. Chuck Henry is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Washington, Bothell and Brian McCarthy is a Solid Waste Management consultant. Both are currently working in Afghanistan.

Sign up