Sanitation in Challenging Environments - Engineers Without Borders Project

Nick Boerema is the Facilitator for Engineers Without Border’s (EWB) Sanitation in Challenging Environments (SCE) project and is based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Nick’s role includes providing technical advice on sanitation solutions and facilitating collaborative efforts to promote knowledge dissemination, innovation and adoption of best practice for sanitation in challenging environments. 

Angela: Can you please provide a brief description of the project and how this new approach was chosen? 




Nick: The SCE project works with the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector to build capacity to provide solutions for sanitation in challenging environments in Cambodia. The challenging environments are those where traditional pit latrines are not suitable and include floating houses and flood-prone, high ground water, coastal and riverside locations. In many of these locations, the lack of appropriate sanitation solutions means that people are defecating directly into the water resources that they then use for washing, bathing and drinking. This contamination is a major cause of diarrhoea, the second biggest killer of children in developing countries, and leads to other major diseases such as cholera, schistosomiasis, and trachoma.

In Cambodia, about 4.14 million people (~27% of the population) live in challenging environments. Such communities face barriers to reach sanitation access, including isolation, transport access, a low awareness of suitable options and very limited cash flow. Communities in challenging environments are often proportionately poorer, whilst appropriate solutions are often more expensive than in other areas. The impacts of climate change are likely to exacerbate these challenging conditions. These environments are not only found in Cambodia, with many other regions of the world facing similar difficulties. EWB-Australia identified that if sanitation is to reach the entire population then solutions need to be developed and implemented now and could best be achieved through raising awareness of challenges faced in these environments, supporting sector collaboration and knowledge sharing and supporting innovation.

Angela: What are the biggest opportunities for sanitation in challenging environments to contribute to a Cleanleap?




Nick: Through the development and support of sanitation solutions that allow nutrient and energy capture. Nutrients can be captured for reuse through converting animal and human waste into fertilisers. This has the benefit of improving crop productivity and reducing the expenditure of people in these environments. Energy capture can be achieved through anaerobic treatment of the waste to create methane that can be used for cooking using a gas stove. These methods remove the need for household expenditure on fertilisers, cooking gas and wood. For people in challenging environments that often only achieve very low incomes, this can make a big difference to their quality of life.

Angela: What are the biggest risks to a Cleanleap for sanitation in challenging environments, from your experience?




Nick: The biggest risks for a Cleanleap faced by the SCE project is through possibly misunderstanding the local context, leading to inappropriate designs that are not used as intended by the community, become abandoned or do not provide enough benefits for the expenditure required. To control these risks EWB works with many local NGOs and communities to form a strong understanding of the community context and embraces 'Participatory Approaches' for ensuring designs and programs are desired and appropriate for the community.


Angela: A final question - What technologies/approaches have you seen in developing countries that might contribute to Australia’s sanitation sector?




 Nick: Through using technologies that complete the nutrient and energy cycle, waste from one output becomes the input resource for the next step in the cycle. This helps in protecting the environment through reducing the new resources needed for a process. It can also make a process more economical through more fully capturing the economic value of the resources used in the process. This is becoming more important for developed countries for meeting environmental requirements and for sanitation providers to stay competitive in the market. One method that is gaining attention in developing countries is the use of 'Participatory Approaches'. The participatory approach works to better involve the community in the design process to allow the community to best express their concerns and interests and guide the creation and implementation of solutions. A key aspect of the approach is the encouragement and inclusion of local champions as peer educators. The aim is to achieve solutions that are most appropriate and desired by the community and to leverage of the existing social capital within the community to achieve a broader reach. This approach could contribute to Australia’s sanitation and business sector for improving community engagement and gaining community support, acceptance and desire for projects.

Angela: Thanks so much for your time Nick.