This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Sludge Report

It is often complained, even in rich countries, that infrastructure has no constituency. We take for granted that someone is going to provide us with clean water and good sewerage and we give it little thought--except to perhaps complain about high taxes. But if we don't recognize that these amenities are not a natural-born right, they will deteriorate and our health and quality of living will suffer. There is no better example of what can happen, and how people try to respond to this, than cities of developing countries, where the tax base simply does not exist to provide infrastructure to the local population. A recent story about Accra, the capital of Ghana, in West Africa, illustrates this sad point.
Accra, Ghana, is a tropical capital on the Gulf of Guinea, but almost no one swims in the ocean here. If you are not turned off by the mounds of trash the ocean continuously heaves onto the beach, the water’s unnatural brownish color hints something is awry. The city’s open sewers empty straight into the ocean. And then, of course, there is Lavender Hill.
Every day, just past a lighthouse on Accra’s western edge, trucks dump more than 250,000 gallons of human feces directly onto the beach and into the ocean at Lavender Hill.

“That's over 100 trucks dumping continuously, day in and day out, where the sludge is channeled down the beach and into the sea,” says Ashley Murray, the 32-year old founder and CEO of Waste Enterprisers, a Ghana-based business with the mission to improve urban sanitation.

 In sub-Saharan Africa, Murray says, such practices are par for the course. More 85 percent of the human waste generated in Ghana and in sub-Saharan Africa is dumped into the environment without any treatment, according to the World Water Assessment Program. This results in an ongoing public health disaster: The World Health Organization reports that diarrheal disease amounts to an estimated 4.1 percent of the total global disease burden and is responsible for the deaths of 1.8 million people every year.

So, the government simply does not have the resources to deal with this problem. Can private industry fill the gap?

Instead of charging people to have their septic tanks and pit latrines emptied, Murray wants to pay them for the waste—or at least take it for free—then process or convert it into a product that will sell. She wants to reinvest some of the profits back into the sanitation sector. “We want to show that we can do good and be a profitable company,” Murray says.
So far, Waste Enterprisers, along with research and funding partners including Columbia University, the Gates Foundation, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, has numerous plans to process human feces. They want to turn our crap into an industrial fuel used in cement kilns, turn stagnant sewage treatment ponds into profitable fish farms, and finally, build the world’s first ever fecal-sludge-to-biodiesel plant, which will be funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
It is still early days with this project, but we have to hope that this works and calls attention to the key role of infrastructure in creating a liveable, sustainable urban environment.

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