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When the water flows in Alex

- Wits University

Rivers of untreated greywater flow through dusty township streets across South Africa.

Greywater refers to any water that does not go down a toilet. It is usually used for hand and body washing, cooking, and cleaning.

When greywater mixes with toilet water, it is known as black water (or sewage or brown water).

Black water contains faecal matter and carries disease-causing bacteria. 

The greywater of an informal settlement is not the same as the greywater of a wealthy suburb.

Those who have to carry their tap water home may use it to wash fruit and vegetables, then bath children, then wash textiles, and then clean the floor. Only then is the water discarded. If shack-dwellers feel unsafe to go outside at night, they amass night soil [human excrement collected at night from buckets or outhouses), which they may then add to greywater in the morning.  

Disposal of this wastewater amidst inadequate or non-existent drainage systems poses health and environmental risks. Hazards such as home car repairs and home slaughtering of livestock in informal settlements aggravate the risks. Under these conditions, waterborne diseases such as cholera thrive and undermine health. Absenteeism from school and work can be expected under these conditions.

A feasible option to improve hygiene in these communities is the installation of constructed wetlands and a network of greywater disposal points. A constructed wetland (CW) is an artificial swamp made of plants and gravel and designed to treat [purify] greywater. CWs can act as a drainage system and can treat wastewater in an eco-friendly, sustainable way.

Accessible Greywater Solutions for Urban Informal Townships in South Africa

The Centre in Water Research and Development (CIWaRD) at Wits University will lead an international team on a project to provide Accessible Greywater Solutions for Urban Informal Townships in South Africa (URBWAT).

The URBWAT project aims to install constructed wetlands in Alexandra township, Gauteng, and incorporates an existing CW project in Langrug township in Stellenbosch, Western Cape, where CWs have been installed but not fully evaluated.

“There is probably a lot of black water in greywater in South Africa, which has implications for people’s health,” says Professor Craig Sheridan, director of CIWaRD and the URBWAT project lead. “Greywater is under-studied in South Africa and this project provides a research opportunity.”

International project partners include the Helmholtz UFZ in Leipzig, Germany, and Linköping University in Sweden. The URBWAT project is one of eight awarded by the Council of the European Union through the Water Joint Programme Initiative (JPI) grant. The Water Research Commission in South Africa will administer the funds here through CIWaRD at Wits, which will host the project. The grant is valued at €840 000 (±R13 million).

Planning for the project kicks-off on Wednesday, 6 February 2019 in Paris, at the International Cooperation for Water (IC4WATER) meeting of Funded Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) Projects for the Water JPI.

Integrated research across Engineering, Psychology and Biology

A uniquely multidisciplinary project, URBWAT will operate in the fields of engineering, the social sciences (psychology and geography), and the natural sciences (systems ecology and microbiology). While engineering and natural science objectives include evaluating the success of CWs in Langrug while designing and installing CWs in Alex to analyse and treat greywater there, social science objectives include assessing the attitudes and experiences of community members and other stakeholders to CWs, through workshops, focus groups, and surveys.

“Through URBWAT, we’ll engage and train community members on the use of the CW system and educate them about the risks and dangers of poor sanitation,” says Sheridan.

Andrew Thatcher, Professor and Chair of Industrial/Organisational Psychology at Wits and Geneviève Metson, Assistant Professor at Linköping University, will lead the social sciences components of this research. 

Water challenges for a changing world

Over 12 million people in South Africa who live in an urban environment live in informal settlements. In fact, 55.9% of urban dwellers in sub-Saharan Africa live in urban slums. The sheer numbers of people (and the effect of wastewater treatment on health and thus on livelihood and prosperity) make the need for ‘adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene’, and ‘improved water quality’, both by 2030, a priority.

Indeed, these are the second and third targets after the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6 (UNSDG6) of ‘access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030’.

The URBWAT project meets the dire need in South Africa for a low-cost, sustainable solution for informal settlements that lack adequate sanitary infrastructure. Additionally, new data will enable further analysis of greywater and the removal of pathogens. Ultimately, constructed wetlands have potential when temporary settlements have to be constructed to deal with an emergency – such as when people are displaced by fires or floods – or for use in refugee camps, where tent-dwellers have poor access to sewerage and/or greywater treatment.