Efficient sanitation for all is one of the targets of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By 2030, everyone’s poo should be effectively contained, transported, treated and disposed of in a safe and sustainable way.

This year’s World Toilet Day, organized on 19 November, focuses on wastewater and the importance of effluent treatment and reuse. Safely processed waste can be a valuable and sustainable source of nutrients, energy and water. The ISO 16075 series on wastewater reuse in agriculture can help farmers safely exploit this cheap and nutrient-rich resource. Poor farmers and those living in areas of water scarcity will benefit the most.

Effective sanitation is also crucial to meeting other SDGs, because when poo gets out, diseases spread, making people sick and killing thousands of children every year. To make sure that wastewater systems don’t get interrupted even in the harshest conditions, ISO 24518 offers a solid crisis management system for water utilities.

But what happens when sewer systems don’t exist, as is the case for a large portion of the world? In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, about 90 % of the urban population does not have access to a sewer system. In regions where people are forced to rely on latrines or septic tanks, ISO 24521 will help service providers safely collect and process waste. The standard offers practical guidance on the management and maintenance of basic on-site domestic wastewater services, or faecal sludge management (FSM) as referred to by most experts, including advice on training operators, evaluating risks and designing basic systems.

Sadly, on-site sanitation systems are often not up to the same standard as the flush toilet. However, sewer systems are too costly for many countries where water is scarce and energy expensive. Each time we flush a toilet, we use several litres of water – a luxury very few can afford. That’s why the ambition of ISO/PC 305, the technical project committee on non-sewered sanitation systems, is to come up with a new solution. “We have been to Mars, we carry computers in our pockets, but we haven’t changed our toilets in two hundred years,” says Doulaye Koné, Chair of ISO/PC 305.

Doulaye Koné
Doulaye Koné, Chair of ISO/PC 305.

The solution the committee is looking for should be just as performing, safe and desirable as the flush toilet, if not superior. These new toilets would operate off-grid (non-sewer) and manage waste on-site, and recover resources such as electricity, clean water (for flushing), solids fuel or fertilizer for other applications.    

Does this innovative toilet exist? According to Doulaye, we have the technology to make it happen, but at this time it’s too expensive. We need a standard to guide innovators, foster competition, enable economies of scale and establish confidence among consumers and governments, so that these solutions can be available to everyone. The new ISO 30500 will offer the necessary requirements and is expected to be published in 2018.

“While ISO 24521 is a great standard for service providers of existing on-site sanitation systems, ISO 30500 will be a game-changing tool for any country that wants to introduce new products and technologies. It is also an important reminder for the sanitation sector and related industries that sanitation approaches and service models are changing, especially for emerging and developing markets where systems will increasingly need to operate off-grid in a sustainable way,” concludes Doulaye Koné.