For Aaron Bivins, Maputo trip turns sanitation data into harsh reality

A Mundy scholar essay
Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Master’s student Aaron Bivins spent part of his summer traveling to Mozambique with School of Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Joe Brown. Along with a team of undergraduate and graduate students, they were laying the groundwork for a study about the relationship between population density and the health effects of sanitation.

This is part of an ongoing series of essays from across the globe written by CEE students who have traveled abroad with the support of the Joe S. Mundy Global Learning Endowment.

For many civil engineers, the facts describing the lack of adequate water and sanitation for much of the world’s population are ordinary news — the World Health Organization reports 2.5 billion people lack any improved form of sanitation, 1 billion people practice open defecation, and 748 million people lack access to an improved water source.

The danger is that we engineers might mistake an appreciation of the statistics for an appreciation of the realities faced by those living without these most basic of needs. My travel to Maputo, Mozambique, in the summer of 2014 convinced me that the two must never be confused.

My journey to Maputo began a week before I boarded a plane, in the pages of a book by Maggie Black and Ben Fawcett, “The Last Taboo: Opening the Door on the Global Sanitation Crisis.”

Typical latrine slab pit toilet used by the more affluent families in the slums of Maputo, Mozambique. (Photo Courtesy of Aaron Bivins.)

The primacy of sanitation as a human need becomes immediately clear in Black and Fawcett’s work when they report that every human being excretes approximately 100 grams of feces every day. Human feces contain a tremendous amount of microbes, some of which are diarrhea-causing pathogens. By containing, transporting, and treating the excreta with minimal contact with the environment and humans, we are able to minimize the risk posed by those pathogens.

For those of us living in developed countries, the infrastructure necessary to achieve this was theorized, designed and installed long ago, and now we participate in such structures as cultural norms more than conscious decision. But we would do well to remember that our forebears wrestled with the technical and economic challenges of sanitation on a grand scale, and our sanitation norms are built on the systems established by their great struggle.

Now this same struggle, characterized by similar challenges, is ongoing in low-income countries throughout the world.

Upon my arrival in Maputo, I was grateful to discover that the means of sanitation at my hotel was quite similar to the flush toilets I use here in the United States. In the more affluent parts of Maputo, flush toilets are quite normal. But once you venture beyond these neighborhoods into the bairros where most Maputans live, the forms of sanitation quickly change.

The sanitation needs of the poorest families in the slums of Maputo are mostly met by holes in the ground, which over time become filled with feces, gray water and refuse.

Such a hole does little to contain, transport or treat the excreta deposited within it. Users must squat precariously over or near the hole while trying to minimize bodily contact with the solids and fluids it contains.

During the rainy season, the hole floods with runoff, and the contents are washed into the nearby structures where people live.

These are the realities that statistics can scarcely describe.

Transport of excreta from full latrines is made very difficult by the narrow passages and alleyways of the bairros. (Photo Courtesy of Aaron Bivins.)

The “middle-class” families living in the slums of Maputo improve their sanitary facilities through the purchase of a latrine slab. Although these slabs are still susceptible to the same flooding issues as the unimproved holes, the crowned slab affords users a convenient place to squat without standing on dirt contaminated with parasitic worm eggs. The keyhole opening in the slab can be sealed between uses to prevent the transport of feces onto food by flies.

With the slab, feces are safely contained in the hole underneath, but what of transport and treatment? What happens when the hole is filled?

The simplest solution might be to dig a new pit and move the latrine slab. But the slums of Maputo are labyrinth-like and don’t afford residents many options for latrine sites. The next solution might be to pump and transport the feces for offsite disposal, but one is again confronted with the maddening logistical difficulties of the developing world, such as alleyways that are only three feet wide.

Once the logistics of transport are determined, the next difficulty is that of economics. How do families living on a few dollars per day pay for feces transport services? Should they skip one or two meals per week?

My travel to Maputo and concurrent reading of “The Last Taboo” brought me face to face with the difficult realities of people living without access to adequate sanitation.

The paragraphs I read in the evening came to life before my eyes during my daytime explorations of the slums. But my encounter with these difficulties has not made me pessimistic. The challenges of sanitation transcend disciplinary boundaries — economics, engineering, logistics, marketing, public health, politics, biology, chemistry — and will require us to transcend disciplinary silos.

I’m optimistic about our ability to overcome these challenges because of my experiences at Georgia Tech. The availability of classes across a wide range of disciplines and the emphasis on pragmatic problem solving ensures that the future leaders in water and sanitation are being cultivated here.

I aspire to be one of those leaders, and my experience in Maputo will be a large part of the inspirational bedrock from which I draw my energy.