Daily BulletinHoliday Centre

The Conversation

  • Written by Matt Barlow, University of Adelaide

Two current global trends are set to make life rather uncomfortable for cities: climate change and the unprecedented rate of urbanisation.

This combination of extreme weather – often involving sudden deluges of water – and high population density will test even the best sewage infrastructure we have today. In the face of such pressures, how adaptable are our sewage systems?

Colonial heritage in our sewage systems

Sewage systems worldwide commonly consist of flush toilets and pipes that rely on a steady supply of water to transport and deposit bodily waste, either to a wastewater treatment plant or, failing that, simply downstream in the nearest river or straight into the ocean.

Many urbanites around the globe are using sewage systems based on a colonial-era template. Initially implemented to cure London’s “Great Stink” of 1858, when a hot summer combined with the excrement-filled River Thames to create an unbearable stench, sewer systems were public health interventions designed to remove pathogens and “miasmatic” offences associated with bodily waste.

They were first transplanted off Britain’s shores in the reconstruction of Paris from 1850–70, and since then have become embedded culture-specific notions of hygiene and sanitation around the globe.

Such colonial infrastructure is now proving increasingly problematic in the face of human-driven global trends (broadly referred to as the Anthropocene).

Using water to flush waste

A paradox of climate change is that there seems to be both more and less water. In South Asia, for example, at least 1.6 billion people struggle to find drinking water despite an abundance of water generally.

image A woman siphoning water from a leaky pipe into a bucket on the side of the road during summer. Author provided

For residents of Darjeeling, India, where I am currently conducting my PhD fieldwork, this paradox is very real. Monsoons in Darjeeling last from June through August, sometimes longer, and rain falls frequently throughout the rest of the year. On the face of it, Darjeeling should have plenty of water, but in fact it faces increasingly acute shortages during the summer months from April to June.

The town’s water and waste infrastructure was built by the British in the 1930s, for what was then a population of 10,000. Its population now hovers around the 150,000 mark, and surges to more than 200,000 during peak tourist season from March to May. Despite this, there has been little to no official maintenance or upgrade since Indian independence in 1947.

In town, signs that urbanisation has outpaced infrastructure capacity are everywhere. An impressive number of pipes move water to and from the population. Along with electricity wires, these pipes traverse the city along increasingly bizarre and precarious routes. Ad hoc retrofit attempts to meet rising demand appear to be band-aid solutions and, because the pipes leak, often exacerbate contamination.

image A typical open sewer in Darjeeling. Note the pipes on either side are water pipes taking drinking water to homes. Author provided

Darjeeling is instructive because it is a landscape struggling with inadequate infrastructure amid a rapidly urbanising population. In such a landscape, fresh water can be contaminated by sewage outflows, largely because the system is completely dependent on water to function.

Such over-reliance underpins another paradox: modern sewerage systems require water to work and yet, if not context-sensitive nor managed appropriately, can dirty vital waterways.

Closer to home

Australia is not immune to such problems. Our changing climate means we too face more severe droughts along with heavier rainfall events. Under these conditions, our sewage systems are under increasing stress.

Earlier this year Melbourne experienced summer flash floods which strained the city’s sewage systems, contaminating three public beaches. In February a heavy downpour in Western Australia caused concern over sewage contamination in the Swan River.

Such experiences are not isolated, and are likely to increase in incidence across the world. They provide important lessons and act as a catalyst for rethinking our relationship to water and waste, particularly amid concerns over water scarcity and extreme weather conditions in southern Australia.

Alternative futures

Many social scientists are now researching alternative forms of infrastructure that are contextually relevant, embedded in community values, and adaptable to current environmental challenges.

These alternative forms include moves to re-examine our relationship with waste in farming, use dry composting toilets, and install public bio-toilets along India’s main railway corridors.

As for my home town of Adelaide, the capital of the driest state on the driest inhabited continent on Earth, should we really continue to use water to flush bodily waste?

Authors: Matt Barlow, University of Adelaide

Read more http://theconversation.com/finally-facing-our-water-loo-its-time-to-decolonise-sewerage-systems-78095


The Conversation


Closing the Gap Statement to Parliament

Mr Speaker, when we meet in this place, we are on Ngunnawal country. I give my thanks and pay my respects to our Ngunnawal elders, past, present and importantly emerging for our future. I honour...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Prime Minister Interview with Alan Jones

ALAN JONES: Prime Minister, good morning.    PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Alan.    JONES: I was just thinking last night when we're going to talk to you today, you must feel as though you've ...

News Company - avatar News Company

Prime Minister Bridget McKenzie press conference

PRIME MINISTER: Good afternoon everybody. The good news is that the Qantas flight is on its way to Wuhan and I want to thank everybody for their cooperation, particularly the Chinese Government as...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Business News

Is Hiring a Corporate Lawyer for Your Company Necessary?

Alternative online legal services like LegalZoom, Incfile, and Rocket Lawyer provides young and budding entrepreneurs access to legal help at a much affordable price without having to hire or meet a l...

Joe Curmi - avatar Joe Curmi

Top 5 Green Marketing Ideas for Your Eco-Friendly Small Business

According to studies, about 33 percent of consumers prefer buying from brands that care about their impact on the environment. This is good news for anyone running an eco-friendly business. It’s a...

Diana Smith - avatar Diana Smith

Choosing the Right Coworking Space For Your Business

As the capital of Victoria in Australia, Melbourne is inhabited by millions of people and is known as one of the most liveable cities in the world. The latter is due to the city’s diverse community...

Sarah Williams - avatar Sarah Williams


Travelling With Pets? Here Is What You Should Know

Only a pet parent can understand the dilemma one experiences while planning a vacation. Do you leave your pets at home?  Will you get a pet sitter or someone to take care of them while you are away?...

News Company - avatar News Company

How to Be a Smart Frugal Traveller

You are looking through Instagram, watching story after story of your followers overseas at a beach in Santorini, walking through the piazza in Italy, and eating a baguette in front of the Eiffel ...

News Company - avatar News Company


Graduation is the stage of life when a student receives the rewards of hard work of years. It must have taken sleepless nights and tiring days to achieve the task. Now, as you have received your cov...

News Company - avatar News Company