Photo by Kaci Merriwether-Hawkins

Battling America’s ‘dirty secret’

Climate change raises the risk from failing sewage systems. So Catherine Coleman Flowers is working for a new way to deal with waste.

Originally published DECEMBER 17, 2020 by Sarah Kaplan for the Washington Post – Climate Solutions.

LOWNDES COUNTY, Ala. — To Catherine Coleman Flowers, this is “holy ground”: the place where her ancestors were enslaved and her parents fought for civil rights and she came of age. Here, amid the rich, dark earth and emerald farm fields, she is home.

Yet this ground also harbors a threat, one made worse by climate change.

Untreated sewage is coursing through this rural community, a consequence of historic government disinvestment, basic geology and recent changes in the soil. On rainy days, foul effluent burbles up into bathtubs and sinks, and pools in yards. Some residents have hookworm, an illness rarely seen in developed nations.

It’s America’s “dirty secret,” Flowers said, a problem stretches beyond one county in central Alabama. Heavier rainfall caused by climate change is saturating soil and raising water tables – confounding septic systems. From the flooded coasts of Florida to thawing Alaska towns, an estimated half-million U.S. households lack adequate sanitation.

Now Flowers, a MacArthur Foundation “genius”, is partnering with environmental engineers at Columbia University on a solution. They are working on a new kind of toilet that will act as a mini sewage treatment facility. Instead of flushing waste, the system they’re working to build will filter, clean and recycle waste on site. Instead of sending raw sewage into the soil, it will turn it into water for use in washing machines, and into nutrients for fertilizer, and perhaps even energy for homes.

The new Wastewater Innovation and Environmental Justice Lab at Columbia will serve as a hub for research on sanitation policy, an incubator for rural activism, and — advocates hope — a birthplace for a better, greener way of managing waste.

What was once a problem can become a solution, Flowers said. And the change will start in Lowndes County, as it has before.

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