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ISO’s two-step solution to improving sanitation for 2.4 billion people

by Maria Lazarte on
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Photo courtesy of WTO

Many of us take toilets for granted, yet as many as one in three people are struggling because they lack access to one. This can lead to poor health, absenteeism from work and school, lack of privacy and safety, reduced concentration and exhaustion. In fact, loss of productivity from poor sanitation and hygiene is estimated to cost many countries up to 5 % of GDP. ISO standards can help reverse this trend and improve the quality of life and dignity of 2.4 billion people.

World Toilet Day (19 November) draws attention to the importance of sanitation in creating a strong economy, improving health and protecting people’s safety and dignity. Ensuring access to toilets for everyone everywhere by 2030 is a global development priority included in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Many people around the world in both developed and developing countries, especially in rural areas, rely on basic on-site sanitation systems like outhouses and latrines. On-site systems, where the wastewater treatment is done locally rather than off-site (sewage system), can be a hygienic low-cost solution when implemented correctly and the waste is disposed of safely. However, many local communities, especially in developing countries, lack the necessary knowledge and resources, so the services are either set up poorly or don’t exist.

The new ISO 24521 aims to change this by offering practical guidance on the management and maintenance of basic on-site domestic wastewater services. The standard also offers advice on training users and operators, evaluating risks and designing and building basic on-site domestic wastewater systems, including alternative technologies that can be set up using local resources. ISO 24521 can be used by both publicly and privately operated sanitation wastewater services for one or more dwellings, regardless of the type of facility model.

“The demand for this guidance came from government agencies looking to bring sanitation services into many rural and some underprivileged urban communities that do not have such infrastructure, or that have it but do not know how to manage it and offer better services to their users,” explains Gerryshom Munala, Convenor of the working group that developed ISO 24521.

But more is needed. Current technologies are failing to address underlying challenges behind the lack of sanitation, including poverty, infrastructure and resources. To help tackle this issue, ISO has created a new project committee to develop a standard focusing on product features and criteria for new technologies. ISO/PC 305 will guide product developers looking for solutions so that they can save precious time and resources, and facilitate adoption by governments and NGOs who will have confidence that these new units meet their requirements and are suitable for local conditions.

The future standard for on-site facilities is expected to address recycling and resource recovery within the unit, safe treatment, positive user experience and affordability. The standard is expected to be available in 2018.

ISO’s two-step solution to the sanitation challenge comprises ISO 24521, a systems management and maintenance standard to optimize existing wastewater services, and a future standard that will offer guidance on new technologies and solutions. Together, both standards will improve health, reduce the environmental impact of wastewater treatment and offer affordable options for users and communities to help change the lives of 2.4 billion people.