A positive example of cooperation between research and humanitarian aid from BOKU University

Research and Innovation are essential to boost positive developments for our environment and our society. This activity is even more rewarding when it provides benefits for vulnerable people. Our member, the BOKU University in Austria, has been involved in a research project for a very good cause: provide humanitarian aid by managing faecal sludge in emergency operations to protect the affected population and environment. Last March, these efforts were rewarded with the Austrian “Neptun Wasserpreis” (water prize).

Improving sanitary conditions in situations of emergency: a humanitarian concern

After the earthquake and the subsequent Cholera outbreak in Haiti 2010 Faecal Sludge Management in emergency operations has shifted into the focus of humanitarian aid. In faecal sludge (on site collection and transport to treatment plant), as in wastewater treatment process and effluent quality control, is highly important to safeguard the environment and the population. This is especially true in disaster response situations and in refugee camps. Due to high population densities and the general vulnerability of the affected population.

Developing and testing of the lab prototype: Malawi

The development of the Faecal Sludge Field Lab (FSFL) was started in 2017 by the Microbial Sludge Quality (MSQ) project, funded under the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF). The prototype was developed at the Institute of Environmental Biotechnology, from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences of Vienna (BOKU), in cooperation with the Austrian Red Cross, Waste COOP and Butyl Products LTD. The prototype included all equipment and supplies for the analysis of 100 samples of the most important process control parameters (COD, TS, nitrogen species, biogas potential, etc..) and public health parameters (faecal indicator organism and helminth eggs). The whole lab, including support equipment like a photovoltaic panel, was field tested in Blantyre, Malawi, where several faecal sludge treatment plants were monitored. The prototype set up at the local project partner is still being used as environmental analysis lab.

New labs in Uganda and Bangladesh

In 2018, a new lad unit was sent to the Ugandan Red Cross Society in the framework of the FAST project. In addition, a field school was organised to train 20 lab techs of the Sub Saharan Red Cross Societies on the operation of the lab. This lab is now placed in Kampala to provide service for emergency situations and development cooperation projects. Within the same project, a scientific paper was published describing the development of the field lab.

By the end of 2018, another FSFL was dispatched to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) to support the two IFRC faecal sludge treatment plants in operation in the camp. Since 2017, more than 700,000 people from Rhakine state fled violence and settled down in the Kutupalong-Balukhali extension site near Cox`s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Initially, pit latrines were constructed as main containment/sanitation system, but this approach towards sanitation proved challenging in the complicated humanitarian context. The clayish ground, high population density and positioning of the latrines within flood plains lead to latrine desludging and set up of faecal sludge treatment plants for safe disposal. By April 2019 the field lab has widened its operation to start monitoring faecal sludge treatment plants of other actors.

Currently, the Austrian Red Cross has started a cooperation with EAWAG for the continuous improvement of the Faecal Sludge Field Lab.