Blog10 September 2020
Very few people probably enjoy talking about faecal sludge management. And in the western world, most people do not have to. Our sewage systems, invisibly hidden underground and often more than 100 years old, flush away everything that we do not want to think about. On a worldwide scale, however, the situation looks rather different: 4.5 billion people still lack access to safely managed sanitation. We spoke to Jennifer Williams, the Executive Director of Faecal Sludge Management Alliance (FSMA), member of the Netherlands Water Partnership. Jennifer explained that “this is a huge problem that needs to be addressed. But at the same time, it offers an enormous market opportunity. Through FSMA we strive to support the worldwide adoption and implementation of faecal sludge management, and to connect governments, NGOs and businesses to this emerging industry.”
The Faecal Sludge Management Alliance (FSMA) is a member-based network that supports organisations and individuals working in faecal sludge management (FSM). Its goal is to create a collaborative, responsive, and collective platform to advocate for the adoption and implementation of faecal sludge management as a utility service. FSMA also aims to support its members in their work in helping to achieve SDG 6.2 and improve access to safely managed sanitation.
‘FSMA is a young organisation. We announced our establishment at the Fifth FSM Conference (FSM5) in 2019 and we only based ourselves in the Netherlands at the beginning of this year. The topic of faecal sludge management is obviously not new, and the biennial FSM Conferences have been taking place for 10 years now. Indeed, from the first conference in 2011, we have attracted growing numbers of attendees and stakeholders in the sanitation sector. The last one, in South Africa, attracted more than 1,200 attendees, ranging from the private sector, local and national government, public utilities and NGOs.
Looking at the steady increase in attendance over the years, the organising committee decided some years ago that it was no longer feasible to organise such a large conference without a professional host organisation. This led to the creation of FSMA.
Whilst organising the biennial FSMA Conferences is the starting point for FSMA, the scope of our work has broadened. Faecal sludge management is a rapidly emerging topic and many new organisations and approaches are entering the arena, creating a growing need to do something about the siloed ways of working and to help the sector professionalise. That is why, in addition to organising the next conference, FSM6, we are now setting up a membership organisation which will help connect individuals and organisations.
Four and a half billion people still do not have access to safely managed sanitation. Public health is at risk, as is the ecosystem as a lot of waste goes back into the environment untreated. At the same time, we are seeing an emerging business opportunity. The nutrients and energy that can be retrieved from waste are valuable, especially in developing countries where resources are scarce.
Looking at sludge management and its issues, you might wonder whether we are primarily trying to solve a worldwide problem or promoting that huge market opportunity. I like to say both! Faecal sludge management is about building a circular economy around human waste and finding the real innovations, instead of trying to copy our water-based sewage system onto another world.
Much of our work is about attracting more companies and businesses into the area. What do we need to do to get them on board and perhaps help derisk their investments? One thing that does not help is that sanitation is always spread around different places in government organisations. Sometimes the urban planning department is responsible, sometimes it is part of rural development. In most cases it is not well funded. To put it differently, sanitation often feels informal, and that can scare away business or finance. It is not always immediately clear what the business case looks like.
This is why we are pursuing two directions. One is towards opening up existing businesses to have an eye for the opportunities. The other is towards the faecal sludge management business itself. With so many newcomers in this area, we are putting much emphasis on helping them structure and formalise their organisations in order to make themselves more attractive to potential investors.
We expect that our membership of the Netherlands Water Partnership will help us find out more on how engaged and included the Dutch private sector, Government and other NGOs are. There is most certainly a capacity gap in faecal sludge management and young international students are sometimes not aware of the career opportunities in this area. This is why we are also keen on finding out more about the Young Expert Programme (YEP) that NWP jointly runs with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Netherlands Enterprise Agency and the Food and Business Knowledge Platform.
One thing that makes us interesting to the wider NWP community itself is no doubt the fact that we have a vast network in sludge management ourselves. We also have a lot of knowledge and experience with FSM solutions that work in many different regions around the world.
We are currently planning the sixth FSM conference in Jakarta and are hopeful that it can be held in-person. Indonesia is an interesting country in terms of FSM because it has a unique geographical challenge which automatically leads to innovative thinking. Some of their approaches are quite different and interesting to learn about.
With our current focus on Africa and South East Asia, you may get the impression that FSM is only relevant to the southern hemisphere. However, it is creeping towards the western world too. The traditional sewage system as we know it is extremely water and energy intensive. One person using five litres of water to flush the toilet uses at least 11,000 litres of fresh water a year just to flush waste down the drain!
As soon as you start thinking about the connection to climate and about water consumption in times of growing water scarcity, you can imagine that at some point in time we may need different and innovative solutions here too. Some are happening already, but much more still needs to be done. And perhaps this is where we can learn from some of the solutions that are being developed in the southern hemisphere right now.’
About FSMA | Apart from organising the next conference - FSM6 - FSMA is getting ready to announce exciting membership opportunities for individuals and organisations. More information on its activities can be found on its website.
About NWP | Webinar on wastewater and sludge management in the Western Balkans. On 22 September 2020, the NWP, with the support of the Partners for Water Programme, will host a webinar on the topic of ‘Wastewater and sludge management for the circular economy in the Western Balkans’. For more information visit the event webpage.