College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

High Level Delegation Visits UKZN

High Level Delegation Visits UKZN

The University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Pollution Research Group (PRG) recently hosted a high-level delegation from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Alongside this visit, the PRG also hosted delegations from the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) and their project partners Yixing Eco-sanitary Manufacturers (EcoSan), the SaniPath research team from Emory University, and students from the Olin College of Engineering.

The visit by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) continues to strengthen the partnership developed initially through an invitation to PRG’s Head, Professor Chris Buckley, in 2008 and 2009 as one of the three experts consulted by the Foundation on the advancement of sanitation solutions for developing countries.

The PRG under the School of Engineering, is globally renowned for its cutting edge innovative research in the management of water resources, waste water reclamation, the impact of effluents on local environments, sanitation systems, faecal sludge management, and other water-related environmental issues. One of the PRGs’ main projects, the Engineering Field Testing Platform (EFT), is linked to the BMGF’s Reinvent the Toilet (RTT) Challenge, a competition launched in 2011 to encourage the development of technological solutions that will bring safe, affordable sanitation to the estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide currently unserved.

This EFT platform allows for the prototypes developed under the RTT challenge to be tested in a real world environment in Durban with the support of the PRG, UKZN Development Studies, the eThekwini Municipality and Khanyisa Projects. A second key project funded by the BMGF is the development of a book on methods for the analysis of faecal sludge which is a collaborative project with Sandec, IHE Delft and the Asian Institute of Technology. The high level team from the BMGF spent time with the PRG to visit the field testing sites and have discussions around the various projects involving the group, UKZN and other external institutions.

The group together with BMGF, CalTech, EcoSan, Emory University and Olin College just returned from the 5th International Faecal Sludge Management (FSM5) and AfricaSan five conference in Cape Town. The FSM5 conference (for which PRG was an organising member), in partnership with the African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW), brought together professionals working in the sector, including utilities, service providers, cities, governments, academics, scientists, consultants, donors and industries, to support the global initiative of disseminating sustainable solutions for faecal sludge management.

‘It made sense that the group would co-organise this joint FSM5 and AfricaSan5 conference as it provided access to a unique synergistic program that combined political will with technical, practical, and academic expertise,’ said Buckley.

Staff and students of the PRG, as well as other project partners showcased their work at the conference in the form of oral presentations or posters and PRG also hosted three workshops on (i)the EFT platform, (ii) drying and dewatering of faecal sludge, and (iii) the methods for the analysis of faecal sludge.

According to Project Manager Susan Mercer, the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) partnered with EcoSan, a private company in China, to develop an ecological sanitation system as part of the BMGF’s RTT Challenge.The system is undergoing testing under the EFT platform by PRG engineers, in a community and school in Durban. The Caltech/EcoSan team came to discuss the future testing plan of the system with the PRG team.

The Emory University SaniPath team of four academics lead by Professor Christine Moe met with water, sanitation and health professionals and academics in Durban in order to undertake preliminary assessments for a detailed study later in 2019. A total of 10 neighbourhoods will be selected in which a detailed assessment of possible faecal E Coli transmission routes will be quantified prior to undertaking a detailed sampling and microbial analysis and risk assessment. In essence the study will answer the question “how much shit does an average person ingest per day under the 100 selected scenarios”. Following the study, the city will be in a far stronger position to plan strategic interventions.

The Olin College of Engineering students says Mercer, attended FSM5 and then travelled to Durban to hold a workshop with some of PRG’s students, with particular reference to pit emptying. The Olin students have a conveyance project aimed at improving emptying pit latrines and by combining the brain power of the Olin and PRG students, ideas to develop a cost-effective conveyance system for faecal sludge during pit emptying were identified. The group also benefitted from expanding their networks and the potential for cross-learning and collaboration in the future.

‘There are a number of other exciting projects lined up for 2019 and beyond. Many of these are collaborative projects with other UKZN disciplines such as Crop Science and Development Studies, the Water Research Commission, who are our key partner in many of our projects, as well as international organisations such as Laboratory Alliance and Global Sanitation Graduate School, ETH Zurich, Emory University, Cranfield University, University of West England, University of South Florida, CalTech, Swansea University, Duke University, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE, India), Tüv Süd and Umeå University among others. Plans are moving forward to develop courses at both undergraduate and postgraduate level on sanitation and PRG is in the process of applying to become a Research Centre within UKZN,’ said Buckley.

Words and photograph: Christian Ishimwe