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Message from Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director on the Occasion of World Water Day 2008

Nature’s Answers to the Sanitation Challenge
At a prison on the east coast of Africa, inmates are pioneering a sanitation project that is working with nature to neutralize human wastes. The initiative, involving the development of a wetland to purify sewage, is expected to cost a fraction of the price of high-tech treatments, while also triggering scores of environmental, economic and social benefits.

Apart from wastewater management, the project is to assess using the wetland-filtered water for irrigation and fish farming, giving prisoners a new source of protein or selling to local markets and developing alternative livelihoods. Part of the so-called “black wastewater” with high concentrations of human waste will also be used for the production of biogas. The biogas can be used as a fuel for cooking, heating and lighting, thereby cutting electricity bills, saving the prison service money and cutting emissions from the 4,000-strong jail, including staff and inmates, to the atmosphere.

News of the project, financed by the Government of Norway and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), with support from a wide range of partners including Kenya’s Coast Development Authority and National Environment Management Authority supported by the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and the University of Wageningen, the Free University of Amsterdam and the NGO “Aqua-4-All” in the Netherlands, comes as the globe marks World Water Day 2008 in the UN International Year of Sanitation.

The Day and the Year are aimed at raising awareness and galvanizing action to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals by 2015. These include halving the proportion of people with no access to sanitation from the current 40 per cent of the global population or an estimated 2.6 billion people.

Sewage pollution, a great deal of which ends up in coastal waters, is estimated to cause four million lost “man-years” annually in terms of human ill-health—equal to an economic loss of $16 billion a year. In many developed countries, part of the answer over the past half century has been found in ever more sophisticated, multi-million dollar water treatment works. But as the new project at the Shimo la Tewa jail in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa highlights, there are other, less costly ways of addressing the same problem with important spin-offs. The sewerage collection and wetland purification system, plus labour and construction costs and including upgrading of sanitary facilities inside the prison, amount to some $110,000 or $25 per person served—something of a bargain.

These do not include benefits likely to accrue as a result of diminished economic costs to the wider environment---reductions of solids that can choke coral reefs and nutrients that can increase risk of de-oxygenated “dead zones”, alongside cuts in bacterial pollution that can contaminate shellfish and ruin someone’s holiday in a locale where tourism income is important to the local economy. Meanwhile, the project is likely to have benefits for wildlife including birds and marine organisms. Thus, in its own modest way, it can play a part in assisting to achieve the global target of reducing the rate of loss of biodiversity by 2010.

The scheme is among a raft of projects being undertaken under the “Addressing Land-Based activities in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO-LaB)” initiative which forms part of the UNEP-brokered Nairobi Convention —a regional seas agreement. It is hoped the lessons learnt can be applied to other parts of the world so that the multiple challenges of sanitation and pollution can, in part, be viewed through a nature-based lens.

The project is, among others, also working with the coastal Ndlame communities in Port Alfred, South Africa, using ponds of natural algae to treat wastewaters including sewage. The algae, a freshwater or marine organism, assist in de-toxifying the pollutants and is then harvested as a commercial fertilizer and protein-rich animal feed. The total project cost here is around $188,000 with economic benefits from utilizing treated wastewater and fertilizer production offsetting the price by $50,000 a year. Similar creative and nature-based projects are being pioneered on Pemba Island, Tanzania and in Dar es Salaam.

The sustainability challenges of the 21st century, including those that relate to water and sanitation, demand more intelligent and creative solutions than perhaps have been deployed in the past. Working with nature rather than against it is part of that intelligent decision-making that may prove a faster, more cost effective and more economically attractive way of achieving local and international health and poverty goals.

Notes to Editors
For more information on UNEP and World Water Day, see
For information on the International Year of Sanitation 2008, see
For information on the “Addressing Land-Based activities in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO-LaB)” initiative, see
For information on the Nairobi Convention, see