Decentralized treatment with packaged wastewater plants can help overcome geographical obstacles to provide adequate sanitation
Until recently, hookworm was thought to be a thing of the past in the United States.
But in 2017, a study spurred by the work of activist, author, and MacArthur fellow Catherine Coleman Flowers found that more than one in three people in Lowndes County, Alabama had hookworm. People become infected with hookworm when they come in contact with infected human waste. It’s evidence of a significant sanitation problem.
Flowers said the hookworm study was just a smoking gun that exposed a much wider “vicious cycle of poverty and disease” in rural America, an issue studied in a report called “Flushed and Forgotten: Sanitation and Wastewater in Rural Communities in the United States.”
Since its publication, a new awareness of the widespread but hidden rural sanitation problem in the U.S. is spreading from small communities to the media and the public at large.
Rural America’s Sanitation Problems
Why don’t rural residents just connect to a municipal grid? In many cases, it is because a municipal system does not extend to rural communities. This leaves residential septic systems as the only option — and a prohibitively expensive option, especially where the local soil is dense clay. People in rural areas are held responsible for their own sewage treatment. If they can’t afford it, they may go without wastewater treatment entirely.
As sea levels have risen, so have water tables in coastal areas, complicating matters more. Even with standard permitted systems, sewage may back up frequently.
With the attention her activism has sparked, Flowers said:
[…] I’m hearing from people around the country that are saying the same thing. We have to get the people that are designing these systems to listen so they can change them and make them work, hopefully, or we need to create something new and different.
Decentralized Treatment for Small Communities
One example of something new and different in rural sanitation is decentralized treatment, which has become more feasible due to technical advances.
Using small, modular treatment plants at the point of need eliminates the considerable expense of setting up pipes that connect remote communities to large, centralized plants.
This model can deliver local control for rural communities along with the benefits of sanitation and even water reuse. Fluence’s Aspiral™ modular wastewater treatment plants, for example, are an ideal solution for treating domestic wastewater. Based on membrane aerated biofilm reactor (MABR) technology, Aspiral™ provides extremely high nutrient removal to the point that treated effluent can be reused for crop irrigation and other nonpotable uses.
And because MABR technology uses passive aeration, it’s highly energy efficient and can be used with nontraditional energy sources in remote rural areas off the grid. Units are packaged in standard shipping containers for simple transportation. And dense clay and high water tables are no impediment because compact Aspiral™ units are installed above ground, with no drain field necessary.