Looming sanitation crisis in the face of climate change

Associate Professor

Georgia Institute of Technology

Published on

Dr Shannon Yee warns of the consequences of climate change on access to sanitation, just weeks before COP27. According to the professor from the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States of America, the global sanitation crisis is likely to accelerate with climate change, and we need a new and innovative technological solution.

There is a pressing issue that is not being talked about enough. Sanitation.

Approximately two billion people still lack safely managed drinking water and 3.6 billion people do not have access to safely managed sanitation representing around half of the global population.[1]

The impact is devastating. Children are drinking water contaminated with faeces, transmitting life threatening diseases and causing diarrhoea and dehydration, resulting in the deaths of over 1000 children under five every day.[2]   With 200 million tonnes of human waste going untreated every year[3], our waste is contaminating land used for agriculture and causing sickness among those who are often the most vulnerable.

The global sanitation crisis is likely to accelerate with climate change, and we need a new innovative technological solution.

From the increased frequency of flooding – drowning our low-lying centralized sewage treatment plants, to extended drought – straining precious water resources, sanitation is under threat.  For example, the number of drought-hit people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia without reliable access to safe water has risen from 9.5 million to 16.2 million in the space of five months.[4]

While often an afterthought, waste treatment is on the frontline of solving many of these challenges.

Untreated waste from flooding overflow is contaminating the world’s land and natural water sources. There is growing awareness that conventional sewers rely on gallons of precious water to transport waste to centralized sewage treatment plants, at a time when countries around the world must deal with catastrophic water shortages.   For example, in South Africa, some communities lack access to safe water due to factors such as insufficient water infrastructure and the impact of flooding (disabling infrastructure) and droughts (literally flushing a precious resource down the toilet). Milestones such as COP27, one of the major diplomatic events in addressing climate change – do however emphasize the importance of looking at ways to provide equitable sanitation for those who still lack access and doing so in a way that is affordable and just.  After all, if we do not take immediate action, we risk failing to meet the UN’s 6th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG6), to ensure the global population has access to water and sanitation by 2030, especially under the pressures of climate change.

As cities and towns across Africa continue to grow, communities are increasingly looking for innovative sanitation solutions that are easier to deploy and less expensive to operate than sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants.   South Africa’s leaders are prioritizing the provision of quality water to communities.  President Cyril Ramaphosa has demonstrated a desire to solve the sanitation crisis and the Minister of Water and Sanitation, Mr Senzo Mchunu recently led discussions on how to address water challenges in Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality, expressing support for investment in wastewater infrastructure.

The role of innovation and engineering is going to be critical in the path ahead.  Despite the impact of poor sanitation on human health risks, innovation in sanitation has not always moved fast enough. That is why, ten years ago, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched a global search for technologies that can deliver safe sanitation to those who need it most, without relying on sewers, septic tanks or running water. In the last few years, a new global team of researchers and engineers—led by Georgia Tech—joined this call and assembled the best concepts to create the Generation 2 Reinvented Toilet (G2RT).

Innovation and engineering have always played a critical role in solving the world’s greatest challenges.   That is why our team is testing the G2RT in areas where there is demand for greater access to sanitation, including in parts of South Africa.

Using technology to reinvent the toilet could be our answer to solving the challenge of equitable access to sanitation in the face of climate change. It could bring us closer to tackling both disease and water scarcity.  But we need the collaboration of policymakers and the private sector to see its potential and work with us to accelerate the adoption of this new sanitation solution.

For this to happen, safe sanitation for all must be a priority.

By Dr Shannon Yee,

Associate Professor at Georgia Institute of Technology


[1] https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2021/The-Sustainable-Development-Goals-Report-2021.pdf

[2] https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/water-and-sanitation/

[3] https://www.livescience.com/16713-7-billion-people-world-poop-problem.html

[4] https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/children-suffering-dire-drought-across-parts-africa-are-one-disease-away-catastrophe


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