Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Big Necessity - Part 2

Ah, still with me, are you? The second half of The Big Necessity is slightly less amusing, but no less rewarding a read. Rose George continues her epic trek through the urban jungles of sanitation, treatment facilities, and even discusses the future of human waste. Sit down, dear readers, and please finish your sandwich before we begin.

The next chapter in the book, Battle of Biosolids, hit close to home. While plenty of the book is spent overseas, in cities and countries where sanitation is pitifully underfunded or non-existant, this chapter deals with our waste treatment centers here in America. In short: what do we do with the sludge that remains when we treat our sewage?

Sludge, if it only containing treated human excrement, would be a good fertilizer. However, sludge contains much, much more - thousands of chemicals such as PCBs, phthalates, dioxins, various carcinogens, hospital and funeral waste with pathogens such as SARS, TB, and hepatitis. Until recently, treated (or raw) sewage was often simply discharged into the nearest convenient body of water. However, once that practice was outlawed, the question remained of what to do with the leftover sewage.

The most convenient option turned out to be spreading it on fields, as has been done the world over since ancient times. Without, however, the pharmaceutical / chemical stew. The thought of this stuff being spread on fields that grow my crops is a bit, nay - MORE than a bit, disturbing, especially since some of these chemicals have shown to be persistant. And naturally, some other people feel the same; Rose George spends some time with these anti-"biosolids" (aka toxic sludge) activists, many of whom have sickened and are dying after living near fields treated with the questionable stuff.

The next two chapters deal further with the sanitation problems in the huge cities, villages, and slums in India and Africa. The author profiles several businessman and public interest groups who are trying to decrease disease and bring better sanitation to the people, as well as the different approaches they are taking. One thought-provoking method is a non-confrontational survey. Here's how it works: the survey taker tours a village and stops smack in the middle of the part of the village where everyone goes to do their daily sanitation business (get the picture?).

Of course, the villagers don't want a guest hanging out in their defecation zone, surrounded by piles of crap! But the survey taker insists on standing there and asking - how many people live here? and proceeding from there to calculate how many tons of human crap get dumped in that spot in a year. The surveyor goes on to wonder where does all that crap go? (animals, into the water, picked up on feet and spread around the village, spread by flies, etc.) Apparently, this breaks the barrier that most people have erected in their minds to get used to this situation as normal and people suddenly become extremely motivated to create a better sanitation setup. Self-motivation - the best kind!

And finally the chapter entitled "The End," where Ms. George covers current trends in sanitation, including sustainability, re-using wastewater as drinking water (sometimes by discreetly pumping it BACK into the aquifer and then withdrawing it as tap water), and dealing with pharmaceutical residues.

She also discusses "leapfrogging" the energy and water-sucking First-World sanitation designs to create something less resource intensive in the rest of the world. At this point, I would have liked to see a bit more info on the energy usage and resiliency for our current American/European systems. Since they are rated on a yearly basis in the "D" range - what is going to keep them from falling apart as we proceed down the energy slope? Only massive influxes of investment and concrete, apparently.

The Big Necessity - an interesting, humorous and sometimes sad book overall. I was left wanting more information - as in, how are we going to maintain this crumbling sewage and water infrastructure without cheap inputs of oil, water, and materials? How will we replace these systems as parts begin to fail in some locations, and what will we replace them with?

I can't fault Ms. George for not addressing these problems, though, as no one else seems to have the answers either. I think we'd better start thinking now - because sanitation is one thing the community (not individuals alone) must address; and sanitation can make or break the health of a community. Over the years of the long emergency, as pipes naturally break, floods overflow, and well - s#%t happens, we will need to develop temporary or permanent alternatives for those cities and towns that don't have funds to keep up their systems properly. Flies travel, and infections can quickly morph into epidemics. We all have a stake in keeping things clean.

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