Columbia World Projects (CWP) announces the launch of a project that will pilot a sustainable approach to wastewater treatment in underserved communities in the Black Belt region of rural Alabama. The project aims to demonstrate that better wastewater treatment systems can yield health, economic and environmental benefits for rural communities in the United States and around the world.
“This project brings together university researchers and rural communities in Alabama to tackle a long-standing source of inequality – the lack of affordable, reliable wastewater services,” said Nicholas Lemann, Director of Columbia World Projects. “Closing this gap will not only be good for the heath, environment and livelihoods of people living in these underserved parts of Alabama, but also may serve as a model for communities across the world grappling with similar challenges.”
Congresswoman Terri Sewell, who represents Alabama’s 7th district, where many of these communities are located, released a statement in support of the project, praising CWP’s investment and work. She said, “I am grateful to Columbia World Projects for their investment in my district and in Alabama’s rural Black Belt to address the challenges posed by failing wastewater infrastructure. This project will build upon the progress my office has made over the years to secure vital federal funding for cost-effective rural sewer and wastewater systems.” Sewell participated in Columbia World Projects’ Forum on unequal opportunity, where the idea for this project was originally proposed.
In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States a D+ grade for its national wastewater infrastructure. Across the country, wastewater and sanitation systems are failing, contaminating water supplies, causing parasitic infections and harming ecosystems. These challenges are particularly acute in low-income rural areas such as the Black Belt region of Alabama, where many households do not have access to the centralized wastewater treatment offered in most U.S. urban areas through public utilities. Alternatives like septic tanks are often incompatible with local soil and too costly for low-income households to maintain. Many instead opt for what is locally known as a “straight pipe” discharge – sending untreated wastewater from toilets to a nearby pit, ditch, stream or waste ground.
This project aims to provide alternative wastewater treatment solutions that can be implemented in a manner that is equitable, technically feasible and financially sustainable. At select pilot sites, the project will install and test new wastewater treatment systems that are clustered and decentralized, connecting neighboring homes or businesses in a single system that collects, treats and re-uses water, reducing the cost of upkeep. Data on how to adopt such treatment systems will be collected and published on an open-source platform, so that governments and rural communities worldwide that are affected by this problem can benefit from what is learned. The project will also seek to provide further evidence of the negative health impacts of using “straight pipe” discharge.
A diverse set of collaborators are involved in the project including communities in the Black Belt; the Consortium for Alabama Rural Water & Wastewater Management; the University of Alabama; the University of California, Irvine; the University of North Carolina; the University of South Alabama; and state and federal officials.
This project aims to provide immediate benefits to households at its pilot sites, including demonstrable improvements in public health and a reduction in toxic discharges to the environment. It will also provide a model for transitioning to a more resilient and sustainable wastewater infrastructure, which could be deployed throughout Alabama, the United States and the world. Ultimately, this project endeavors to provide historically disenfranchised communities access to a basic resource: safely treated wastewater.