Guest opinion: We need all hands on deck to solve America’s sanitation problems

This is a guest opinion column

Five years back, when we made our first visit to Lowndes County Alabama, we were greeted with the smell and sight of raw sewage pools in people’s backyard, running over potable drinking water lines and backing up into homes through bathtubs, toilets and sinks. This is not a sight anyone expects to see in the US – a majority of us just flush and walk away, letting large wastewater treatment facilities miles away deal with the mess. Stories of putting used toilet paper in the trash to avoid clogging, raw sewage backing up into their bathtubs and sinks during heavy rains, or constantly listening to gurgling in the pipes to know when not to flush were told by the residents as a matter of day-to-day living. It was a punch in the gut to see generation after generation of families, grandparents, parents and their children faced with no choice but to embrace all that muck in their everyday lives.

While location, poverty and inequality are some of the major reasons why Lowndes County community falls through the crack, the unique soil composition of the land in the black belt has made solving the sanitation issue extremely challenging and complex. The clay rich soil across the Black Belt does not absorb water very well, making traditional septic systems inoperable or fail. As a consequence, an estimated 80% of the homes in the county have no access to a municipal sewage system and estimated 35% of homes dump raw sewage on their property.

We along with the United Nations recognize equal access to sanitation as a basic human right. A safe, hygienic and affordable sanitation system ensures not only health but also dignity of a person and a community. This has been denied to the residents of Lowndes County for decades. When we left the county, we knew we had to combine resources with like-minded community members to make their lives healthier and safer. LIXIL, Alabama Department of Public Health, University of South Alabama, International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO), and Fuji Clean, along with the Alabama Wastewater Consortium have come together to provide viable innovative and sustainable wastewater treatment systems coupled with water efficient fixtures to improve the homes and lives of the residents.

Guest opinion: We need all hands on deck to solve America’s sanitation problems

The Alabama State Department of Public Health secured US Department of Agriculture (USDA) funding to pilot 100 homes and created a successful implementation model which can be replicated in other counties across the black belt, thereby potentially helping thousands of people in the State. The University of South Alabama, designed alternative engineered systems for homes and IAPMO arranged for volunteer plumbers to help alleviate costs of installation. LIXIL brought on board innovation experts Fuji Clean and coupled their technology with LIXIL’s water efficient products to provide basic sanitation to over 100 homes.

We hope these systems and solutions will be used beyond Lowndes County, Alabama – with the goal to be scaled up to more homes across the black belt. It is encouraging to see that the governments, state and federal, are investing in water and wastewater treatment infrastructure in underserved communities. The recently passed Infrastructure Law, has earmarked $11.7 billion for upgrading municipal sewer and drainage systems, septic tanks, and clustered systems for small communities across the US. This proven solution model in Lowndes County, should be expanded to help thousands of individuals across the black belt. The Alabama model could also be used to help the 2.2 million Americans who lack basic plumbing in states across the US.

Unlocking new innovative sanitation solutions that are suitable to a region’s specific environmental, economic and social needs would be the positive by-product of such public-private partnerships and we believe this is how we’ll begin to solve this problem. The collective power of the funding of the federal government, community reach of the local leaders, design thinking and technology of the private sector and academia, implementation expertise of the plumbing community and Administration by state and local government can deepen the positive impact on the solutions. We need all hands on the deck to make better homes a reality for everyone everywhere.

Troy Benavidez is Leader of International Government Relations and Policy, LIXIL Americas, home to brands American Standard, GROHE, DXV and INAX, water and housing products.

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