Getting Water from a Worm

Cost-effective and sustainable solutions are needed to solve the world’s water crisis.

A resident digs for water in a dried-up river bed in the Turkana region of Kenya.

When Chilean company BioFiltro was awarded first place at the Cleantech Open Global Ideas competition in November 2011, co-founder Matias Sjorgen thanked an extensive supporting cast:

“Thanks to all my worms,” he said, accepting the award in Silicon Valley, California. “They work 24 hours per day, seven days per week. So the prize is for the worms.”

The Cleantech Open is a U.S.-based nonprofit organization with the mandate to “find, fund, and foster entrepreneurs with big ideas that address today’s most urgent energy, environmental, and economic challenges.” With its use of worms and tiny organic microbes to consume the impurities in wastewater, BioFiltro has created a natural sewage treatment system that uses 80 percent less energy and runs at just one-third the cost of traditional chemical wastewater treatment with no harmful byproducts.

The technology has been used successfully in Chile on a small scale since it was first developed 20 years ago. Along with $100,000 in services to help promote the business, winning the Cleantech Open also brought BioFiltro exposure on the international stage. Shortly after winning the competition, the company landed a meeting with World Bank in February 2012 to examine bringing the technology to Africa.

The meeting represents the first significant development in finding a solution to the world’s water crisis since the United Nations finally recognized clean water and sanitation as a human right in July 2010. Though the United Nations claims it is on pace to meet and exceed the Millennium Development Goal of reducing by half the number of people without access to clean water and sanitation, its own lead expert has pointed out problems in the U.N.’s methodology and called for more substantive changes.

Close to one billion of the planet’s seven billion people do not have access to clean drinking water. Over 2.6 billion people do not have improved sanitation, and over 1.2 billion people practice open defecation — staggering figures considering that the greatest threat to clean drinking water is contamination from poor sanitation.

Why for so many years had the United Nations failed to recognize the right to clean water and sanitation as a basic human right?

The Human Right to Clean Water

The Congo River is some people's main source of water for drinking, cooking, and washing.

Though essential for survival, the right to clean drinking water and sanitation was not recognized as a human right until July 2010 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 64/292, “The human right to water and sanitation.”

The recognition was a long time coming. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contained 30 articles defining various inalienable civil, cultural, economic, and social rights, but it did not define the right to clean water and sanitation as a human right.

Curiously, the first international recognition of a right to clean water and sanitation came about only in mention of prisoners of war and civilians in occupied countries. The Geneva Convention IV of 1949 stated that “sufficient drinking water shall be supplied to internees”, and they “shall be provided with sufficient water and soap for their daily personal toilet and for washing their personal laundry.”

From 1949 until 2010, while nations had an express obligation to provide clean water and sanitation to citizens of nations they were occupying, they were under no obligation in U.N. conventions to provide the same necessities to their own citizens, whether in wartime or in peace.

In 1966, the United Nations had two further opportunities to state expressly the right to water as a human right, but again it remained silent. Like the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights affirmed essential rights such as the right to life, the right to dignity and the right to self-determination. However, the covenant contained no mention of a right to clean water and sanitation.

The same year, the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights required member nations to protect and fulfill rights such as the right to health, the right to housing and the right to work. Remarkably, the right to clean water and sanitation was again not stated expressly. In recognizing and adopting the tenets of the convention as part of their own domestic law, many member nations expressly acknowledged that the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to health include the right to clean water and sanitation. However, many other nations did not.

In 1977, two protocols protected the victims of armed conflict. One stated that “it is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as … drinking water installations … for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party”. The right to clean water was not universally extended to all people, however.

When the United Nations released General Comment 15 in 2002, stating that the right to clean water and sanitation are essential to the rights expressly enumerated by the covenant, the number of nations that acknowledged domestically the right to clean water and sanitation doubled. However, it is important to note that General Comments are issued for clarification and are not binding.

By 2002, the right to water had been implicit in several other United Nations conventions, including the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the 1999 Protocol on Water and Health. Subsequent to the 2002 clarification, a similar right to “clean water services” appeared in the 2003 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Despite the position articulated in General Comment 15 that the right to water should be read into existing covenants, and despite the recognition of a right to water and sanitation in the covenants stated above, in 2006 the United Nations Human Rights Council decided the issue of whether the right to water should be a human right required more study. Resolution 2/104, “Human Rights and Access to Water”, directed the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights to conduct a study examining “the scope and content of the relevant human rights obligations related to equitable access to safe drinking water and sanitation under international human rights instruments”.

The following year, a concluding report from the study was published and the High Commissioner came to his conclusion: “It is now the time to consider access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right.”

Rather than finally proceed with acknowledging this essential human right, the United Nations again determined more study was required. In March 2008, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution appointing an Independent Expert “on human rights and access to safe drinking water and sanitation.” That same year, the United Nations appointed Portuguese law professor Catarina de Albuquerque as an Independent Expert, and in 2009 and 2010, de Albuquerque met with expert consultants on the Millennium Development Goals and the human rights of water and sanitation.

45-year-old Bashe Ahmed Bile collects water for his relatives from an Oxfam water pump in Somalia.

In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 64/292, finally stating the right to clean water and sanitation is a human right. The resolution, which was initiated by Bolivia, does not bind member states the way a covenant would, but finally created an official recognition that many of the existing rights already entrenched by convention include the right to safe water as a necessary component.

The independent expert presented her report entitled “Human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation” to the United Nations General Assembly in August 2010. Surprisingly, her conclusions on the overall progress in meeting Millennium Development Goals were much different than the U.N.’s own analysis.

The Myths of the UN Millennium Development Goals

Under the United Nations Millennium Declaration of September 2000, 189 nations committed to work together to reduce extreme poverty in the world. Millennium Development Goal 7.C commits the international community to “halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation.”

In her report, the independent expert stressed the important role clean water and sanitation play in achieving many of the other Millennium Development Goals. She notes that access to clean water and sanitation “can reduce the risk of child mortality by 50 percent” (Goal 4), “reduce diseases such as anemia and vitamin deficiency that undermine maternal health” (Goal 5), and reduce the risk of disease such as malaria “which claims the lives of some 1.3 million people per year, 90 percent of them children under the age of five” (Goal 6) and sicknesses such as diarrhea, which cost “443 million school days each ear” (Goal 2). Finally, by decreasing water collection and responsibilities and time spent caring for relatives with water-related diseases, women will have more of an opportunity to engage in productive activities (Goal 3).

Perhaps the most direct connection is between water and nutrition. De Albequerque wrote:

Looking beyond basic water supply for personal and domestic uses, the absence of clean water and sanitation is also a major cause of poverty and malnutrition, and water insecurity linked to climate change may increase the number of people suffering malnutrition by 75 million up to 125 million by 2080 (Goals 1 and 7).

There are substantial differences between the UN’s 2010 progress report on the Millennium Development Goals and the independent expert’s 2010 report. While the UN progress report states water and sanitation goals will be met by 2015, the independent expert says the goals will not be met at the current rate of progress.

The UN’s 2010 progress report states, “The world is on track to meet the drinking water target, though much remains to be done in some regions.” The report goes on to state:

If current trends continue, the world will meet or even exceed the MDG drinking water target by 2015. By that time, an estimated 86 percent of the population in developing regions will have gained access to improved sources of drinking water.

In the developing regions as a whole, drinking water coverage in urban areas, which stood at 94 percent in 2008, has remained almost unchanged since 1990. At the same time, rural drinking water coverage increased from 60 percent in 1990 to 76 percent in 2008, narrowing the gap between rural and urban areas.

However, in her September 2010 report, the independent expert pointed out some significant problems with the UN’s analysis, bringing many conclusions in the progress report into question. In her overview of the situation, she explains her conclusion that the targets are not likely to be met by 2015:

According to the latest estimates, 884 million people worldwide rely on unimproved water sources. Of those, 84 percent live in rural areas. Sanitation is of greater concern still, as it is one of the least likely to be targets. Some 2.6 billion people worldwide are without improved sanitation and 1.2 billion people — mostly in rural areas — continue to practice open defecation. If the current rate of progress is maintained, the sanitation target will be missed by 13 percentage points, meaning that, by 2015, 2.7 billion people will still be without access to improved sanitation.

As de Albequerque goes on to point out, there is significant disparity between the Millennium Development Goal of bringing clean water and sanitation to half the people who don’t have access, and the fact that by UN declaration, all persons have the basic human right to clean water and sanitation. In short — why is the remaining half being deprived of its human rights?

The disparity prompted de Albequerque to note, “even if the targets are met, many people will still not have access to water and sanitation. Hence, efforts to realize access to both sanitation and water must be reinforced.”

Meeting the Millennium Development Goals “would still leave 672 million people without access to water and 1.7 billion people without access to sanitation in 2015”. Human rights standards go much further than the Millennium Development Goals. International human rights law requires countries to aim for universal coverage within time frames unique to the circumstances and needs of each country. Under the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, states are required to follow a course of “progressive realization”, which means they are “under the obligation to progressively realize the rights to water and sanitation to the maximum of their available resources”.

One of the failings of the Millenium Development Goals, de Albequerque said, is the lack of “incentives to go beyond the standard necessary to reach the Goals”. Countries formulating domestic policy in the belief that in achieving the Millennium Development Goals they will be discharging their human rights obligations are mistaken, de Albequerque said.

Instead, she said, developing countries should follow the lead of states such as Bengladesh, Kenya, and South Africa, which all set targets for access to water and sanitation higher than those of the Millenium Development Goals. Other countries have gone even further — Sri Lanka plans to have universal access to water by 2025.

Countries with inadequate resources to satisfy the human rights to clean water and sanitation are obliged to call on the international community for assistance, and the international community has a duty to respond.

The independent expert said in her report that the responsibility for the failure to meet the target of Millennium Development Goal 7.C falls both on those asking for and providing aid:

The poor record of achievement for target 7.C. reflects inadequate political prioritization by donor and partner countries alike, particularly in the case of sanitation. While aid for water and sanitation is increasing in absolute terms, the share of the water and sanitation sector has been declining relative to other sectors. Moreover, aid is generally not well-targeted: only 42 percent of aid for these sectors committed between 2006 and 2008 was addressed to least developed and other low-income countries. The share of aid for basic sanitation and water services decreased from 27 percent in 2003 to 16 percent in 2008, much greater shares being directed at large systems, which generally do not reach the poorest segments of the population. Strikingly, only about one third of aid to the water and sanitation sectors is directed to sanitation, even though far greater efforts are needed in this area.

But how could the United Nations and its independent expert arrive at such different conclusions about progress toward meeting the Millennium Development Goals? How could the UN conclude the goal will be met, while the independent expert concludes that it won’t?

Part of the explanation for this discrepancy comes from a difference in the definition of terms used in assessing the progress. As de Albequerque points out, the measure of success for meeting Target 7.C is whether people gain access to an “improved source of water”, a term which goes undefined. She writes:

The indicator for target 7.C is the proportion of the population having sustainable access to an improved water source. The definition of an improved water source is not specified in detail but refers mainly to the specific types of water supply such as piped water or protected wells.

She goes on to explain that many of the “improved” water sources the UN counts as satisfying the target goal may not actually do anything to improve the water people receive. For example, if people have been drawing contaminated groundwater from an open well for many years, putting a cap on the well qualifies it as an “improved source of water” even if the water remains contaminated. She stresses the importance of including an assessment of drinking water safety.

“This is already done in Bangladesh, where a serious contamination of the groundwater with arsenic made it mandatory to monitor water quality since many ‘improved’ water sources were severely contaminated,” de Albequerque said in the report.

Focusing on whether the infrastructure of a water source is “improved” presupposes an improvement in water quality that may not exist, but it also fails to consider whether there is an adequate quantity of water. In many areas, seasonal dry spells could result in a lack of water for extended periods of time. A well that is properly capped but completely dry would be considered an “improved water source” under the definition the UN uses in assessing progress in meeting Millennium Development Goals. Thus, communities with contaminated water or no water at all are still counted as success stories.

A water engineer tests the quality of water from a well.

Because it puts the focus on the infrastructure at the point of water collection, the UN analysis also fails to take into account proximity to the water source. The independent expert asserts that a better indicator of accessibility would consider not only the safety of the water source, but also the amount of time water collection takes. A person’s distance from the water source affects the quantity of water that can be collected. Likewise, de Albequerque concluded there should be an examination of accessibility in “schools, workplaces and other spheres of life”.

Apart from these problems in methodology, another major concern the independent expert identified is the relationship between drinking water and sanitation. The Millennium Development Goals specify that human excreta is to be kept separate from water but says nothing about its proper disposal. De Albequerque identified this as a serious threat to clean water:

Where the collection, treatment, disposal or re-use of excreta is not carried out with adequate care, leakage into groundwater, which is often a source of drinking water, may occur. Similarly, sewage from flush toilets that is not treated may end up in water used by downstream communities. In such cases, leakage of sewage from “improved” sanitation facilities then results in polluting water sources which are nevertheless considered “improved” sources under the Millennium Development Goal framework.

The independent expert concluded that while the Millennium Development Goals reflect human rights responsibilities to some extent, additional considerations based on broader human rights standards bring the relative success of the Millennium Development Goals into question.

“When these additional criteria are factored in, a much bleaker picture emerges. While the extent of the gap is unknown, far more people than indicated by the figures measuring access to improved water sources and sanitation facilities do not have access to sufficient water and sanitation services that are safe, acceptable, accessible and affordable,” she stated in her report.

Looking to the Worms

The greatest threat to clean water is poor sanitation, but as de Albequerque stated in her report, a disproportionately high percentage of international aid is earmarked for water projects instead of sanitation projects. Investing in proper sanitation will protect water sources by reducing the risk of contamination.

In that respect, the BioFiltro system does what most sanitation systems would do: it creates a secure holding area for human waste and prevents sewage from entering watering holes and groundwater. However, BioFiltro goes a step further in that it also converts the wastewater into clean water while creating a natural byproduct of nutrient-rich fertilizer.

BioFiltro systems vary in size depending upon the amount of waste being treated. However, all systems contain multiple filter layers consisting of porous material and filtering stones. Sewage is irrigated into the upper porous level, which houses a large number of earthworms, rotifers and other microscopic organisms. The liquid portion of the sewage drains through the filter, which holds the organic waste material.

The worms consume the effluent waste material, converting it into carbon dioxide, water and earthworm castings. The castings can then be collected and used in agriculture as a nutrient-rich fertilizer. Because the waste feeds the worms, they procreate and multiply in the filtration system itself, which makes them cost-effective, self-generating organic filters.

After the liquid drains from the top level, it passes through a lower layer of filtering stones where micro-organisms continue the organic filtration. The process is repeated until the water is 99 percent free of fecal coliform. While not suitable for human consumption in that state, it can still be used for agricultural irrigation without contaminating the food.

Communities using such a system would not only protect their water sources and safely treat their sewage, they could also collect the water and fertilizer to safely grow crops that are currently irrigated only with contaminated water. In communities where water needs are satisfied, the production of water and fertilizer from sewage treatment could actually become a source of income.

The technology BioFiltro uses was first developed at the University of Chile almost 20 years ago, and the company was founded two years later. BioFiltro has already had many years of success with small-scale projects in Chile, providing sewage treatment services for communities and organizations with 6,000 to 16,000 people. Today there are BioFiltro sites in 24 communities in Chile, with additional projects in New Zealand, France, Mexico, Paraguay, and Uraguay.

Over the years, the company’s projects grew larger, and in the last decade, BioFiltro began offering a similar filtration system for liquid industrial waste. There have been 42 such projects in Chile since 2001, handling a maximum discharge of 7,800 cubic meters per day.

BioFiltro has had the most success with their smaller sewage treatment systems in northern Chilean communities. While operating on a small-scale may seem like a business limitation, it could prove to be a great strength in bringing clean water and sanitation to rural areas where they are most needed, particularly in Africa.

As Sjorgen pointed out in a January 2012 interview in the Santiago Times, BioFiltro’s green process uses 80 percent less energy at one-third the cost of traditional chemical wastewater treatment.

“We are a business with a simple and sustainable technology, which is necessary in Africa,” Sjorgen said.

The international community has begun to take notice of Sjorgen and his company. BioFiltro’s victory in the Cleantech Open Global Ideas competition attracted the attention of the World Bank, the international financial institution that works to reduce poverty by offering loans and other programs of assistance developing countries.

A 2010 report by the World Bank said one third of the bank’s total lending, approximately $54 billion, was linked to water shortages. However, there was a great discrepancy between countries with the greatest need and the amount of aid offered. Countries most in need of water, such as Ethiopia, Haiti and Niger, were given just one-seventh the amount of aid on a per capita basis, as water rich countries such as Guyana.

Critics of the World Bank’s water program, such as the international nonprofit organization WaterAid, say such discrepancies are the result of the World Bank’s insistence on placing economic conditions on its loans and aid. They call for the World Bank to simplify the process and provide aid where the need is greatest — and with no strings attached.

The Worm is Turning

Perhaps the best way to simplify the funding process for international aid and the water crisis in general is to fund technologies that simplify sanitation and water treatment. The U.N.’s independent expert on clean water and sanitation has said placing more of a focus on sanitation issues will reduce contamination and lead to safer water supplies. BioFiltro has shown that green technology can create wastewater treatment with 80 percent less energy at one-third the cost of traditional chemical treatment — while creating a natural byproduct that can be used as an asset for agriculture and a source of revenue.

Starting with its omission from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the United Nations repeatedly failed to acknowledge the right to clean water and sanitation as a human right. Simply put, it may be that the world’s water situation is at a crisis point today because the United Nations did not declare water a human right until 2010.

As with any form of international aid, the previous efforts of the World Bank and other international aid bodies have been complicated undertakings, fraught with political sensitivities and the ongoing difficulty of coping with increasing demand for increasingly scarce resources.

BioFiltro is leading the way toward sustainable water and sanitation solutions for the future. It’s a complicated issue, and the technology may not be an instant panacea for the world’s water crisis, but perhaps the most important aspect of its recent success is that there are thousands of other companies in the world striving to hit upon the same magic formula of achieving sustainable solutions that are also economically viable. The Cleantech Open Global Ideas competition last year attracted over 1,000 entrants from 23 countries, each with viable and sustainable business solutions. Other finalists included a cost-effective silicon solar cell technology from Denmark, a clean fuel technology from Sweden, and a U.S. company that produces clean energy from ocean waves.

Ultimately, a solution to the world water crisis is within reach, but the methods used must be economically sensible and sustainable. For Matias Sjorgen and other green entrepreneurs around the world who are developing such solutions, the worm is turning.

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