As any dedicated wastewater treatment engineer does when traveling, Global Water Stewardship (GWS) founder Mohammed Haque asked, “So what do you do with your wastewater here?” on his first visit to Costa Rica in 2013. The answer was sobering, particularly in light of the abundant natural beauty and environmental diversity for which Costa Rica is famous.
An unanticipated issue…
There is just one conventional wastewater treatment plant in the country, located in San Jose. Decentralized facilities exist throughout the rest the country, typically using septic systems. However, such systems have a finite useful life and fail if they are not maintained. Septic systems are intended for low-volume usage in sparsely developed areas. But in the developing world, it is not unusual for septic systems to be used in densely populated small communities in rural areas. In locations like these, the risk of failure is high and the resulting pollution of area waterways with pathogens and biological waste can contaminate water supplies and lead to environmental degradation.
Additionally, the majority of the grey water (used water from everywhere but the toilet) is not discharged to the septic systems, but rather passes through trenches on the sides of the road straight to rivers and estuaries where it is dumped into the ocean without treatment. This water carries contaminants and environmental pollutants that can be detrimental to both human health and marine life. Many communities in Costa Rica are dependent on marine life for their survival, as both a source of food and income from tourism. Without proper treatment, the untreated water can negatively impact the incredible biodiversity that Costa Rica is known for. Mohammed decided he needed to do something.
Back in the United States, Mohammed founded GWS in 2013, as a subcommittee of the Central States Water Environment Association (CSWEA), which is an organization of wastewater treatment professionals from Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. GWS is a non-profit organization that resolves sanitation issues in the developing world by educating people and engineering sustainable centralized solutions that keep waterways clean and communities healthy. Most GWS volunteers are wastewater engineers who are members of CSWEA, but the organization is growing to include engineers from across the U.S. as well as students, and business and marketing professionals. GWS’ initial project sites are in Costa Rica, specifically, in Piedras Blancas, Bahia Ballena, and Dominical. However, GWS ultimately wants to provide centralized sanitation solutions throughout the developing world, where according to the United Nations, 2.4 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation.
Each year, GWS works with contacts in Costa Rica, as well as AyA (the Costa Rican governing water authority), to identify a community served by an ASADA (local water utility), that would benefit from a centralized sanitation facility. Over the course of trips to Costa Rica throughout the year, GWS provides outreach to the communities, and education on the benefits of centralized sanitation. Back in the U.S., GWS hosts an annual engineering student design competition for the centralized facility. The winning team has an opportunity to travel to the next project location to help gather engineering data. GWS then coordinates with local regulators, community officials, and funding partners to complete the design, obtain necessary permitting, and construct the facilities. GWS assists with startup of facilities and training of operators.
GWS is funded through donations to its tax-exempt parent organization, CSWEA, and is in the process of obtaining its own tax-exempt status. Part of our work involves securing funding for construction from aid agencies and the local government. We also try to work with local ASADAs to secure reimbursement for the engineering costs covered by GWS, so that we can apply these funds to the next project.