National nonprofit company Engineers Without Borders South Africa (EWB-SA) and its student chapter at the University of Cape Town (EWB-UCT) last month hosted an interactive discussion for students and young professionals regarding the future of sanitation in South Africa.
“The aim was to facilitate a relaxed, informally structured discussion from an activist, academic and entrepreneurial point of view on the future of sanitation,” notes EWB-SA member and event coordinator Anthony Fry, as there is a necessity to broaden the perspective of students on sanitation.
EWB-UCT vice chairperson Chloë Bolton says the event was not intended to develop any concrete solutions to solving sanitation problems in South Africa, but to identify the nature and complexity of the problem. “With the range of representation among panellists, we were able to define some of the political, social, health, sustainability, economic and technological implications of existing and foreseeable sanitation problems.”
Contributing partners of the discussion were members of the national committee of Young Water Professionals, the South African Institute for Civil Engineers Young Members Panel, and Consulting Engineers of South Africa Young Professional Forum, all of whom helped EWB-SA create awareness of the event and determine suitable panellists to lead the discussion.
Panellists who led the discussion include Stellenbosch University Sustainability Institute academic director Professor Mark Swilling, bioconversion company Biocycle CEO Mark Lewis, consulting engineers Aurecon civil engineer Lulama Ngobeni and civil society organisation Social Justice Coalition local government programme head Axolile Notywala.
Swilling discussed key design principles for developing alternative, socially inclusive, ecological and sustainable sanitation systems. “He encouraged a shift from talking about waste to talking about resources through the creation of centralised, inclusive and affordable closed-loop systems,” notes Bolton.
Lewis encouraged the audience to reimagine sewage as a valuable resource by introducing the concept of nutrient recovery from waste resources to create products for economical benefit.
Ngobeni shared her knowledge on dry sanitation and community engagement regarding the implementation of these technologies. She spoke about different approaches to implementing such technologies in communities, especially rural villages, and how this affects community members’ acceptance and perception of the technology.
Notywala steered the conversation away from technological issues and encouraged attendees to think deeper about the social problems of sanitation systems. He highlighted that areas such as informal settlements commonly have alternative forms of sanitation – communal and temporary ones – to the traditional flush system. “The problem of sanitation is not only one of wasted resources, but rather one of safety, health and dignity,” he added.
Fry mentions that government representatives also attended, providing insights into the health aspects of sanitation, as well as how education about sanitation can decrease expenditure on health in government budgets.
He says this is the first of a series of meetings that will lead up to a sanitation workshop in May, where “hands-on solutions” for future sanitation will be discussed and presented.
The workshop will tackle drought-related issues that are affecting areas in the Western Cape and discuss disaster relief regarding sanitation for not only the province, but also the country, with the aim of achieving tangible outcomes on making sanitation more socially sustainable and less pollutive.
“The workshop attendees will discuss sanitation holistically, seeing how we can transition from a sanitation system that is infrastructure-intensive to a system that is more sustainable, healthy and environmentally friendly,” says Fry.
He adds that EWB-SA also hopes to showcase sanitation solutions and generate more interest in future of sanitation improvement in South Africa at the African Utility Week event taking place from May 16 to 18 at the Cape Town International Convention Centre.
Since 2013, EWB-SA has piloted various initiatives to activate the youth voice in the engineering sector, generate innovative ideas and opportunities that have potential to move society forward, use technical skills to serve communities through technical and infrastructure development, and transfer engineering knowledge through mentorships and partnerships.
“The passion and commitment that many members have invested into building the organisation has accelerated our growth and made us a representative and dynamic youth voice in the country’s engineering sector,” EWB-SA states.
EWB-SA believes that a competent, engaged and vibrant engineering sector in South Africa is critical for sustainable development.
The organisation aims to provide communities and community-based organisations with access to engineering skills and technologies to improve the quality of life in a sustainable manner.
“We see our role as one of building bridges that connect students with professionals, graduates with retiring engineers, rural understanding with urban experience and engineers with nonengineers.”