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Faecal Sludge Management in China: a strong public sector enables innovative business

Published on: 18/12/2014

Participants from IRC, the BRAC WASH programme and Biosol Energy BVAs have been on a study trip to China as part of ongoing action research on the productive use of faecal sludge. This one-week study tour was supervised by the Centre for Sustainable Environmental Sanitation (CSES) at the University of Science and Technology Beijing (USTB). Various biogas and composting sites in and around Beijing and Chengdu were visited, as well as companies working in this sector. This blog discusses some of the insights gained from this visit as well as possible lessons for the BRAC WASH programme.

When discussing my travel plans with my colleagues, many were surprised to hear I would be visiting China. After all, China is one of the world's leading economies, making it not your typical IRC working terrain. Nonetheless, China does offer a lot of valuable lessons for the international sanitation sector, especially in the sub-field of field of faecal sludge management (FSM) – a topic which is deservedly gaining more attention in the international arena. This sub-field concerns the management and treatment of human waste that is found in on-site systems like pit latrines, septic tanks and other systems which are not linked to a (centralised) sewerage. These on-site systems have been long neglected by public authorities in many parts of the world, with most public funds and utilities focussing only on sewerage networks. This has led to the situation where pits and septic tanks are left to overflow into drains and open water bodies, or where waste is collected and subsequently dumped without treatment.

Despite its tremendous growth, China still has a large number of households and public toilets which are not linked to a sewer system. In contrast to many other countries, it has embraced this on-site legacy and instead of focussing only on sewerage expansion, it has found ways to deal with its own waste. Through strong support from the public sector and a large technological basis, the Chinese have developed a wide range of products and services which are now also finding their way into the international market. Unlike many Western-based companies, NGOs and technical cooperation services which design solutions for other countries, Chinese FSM systems have the comparative advantage of being developed and tested as a response to issues in their own country. In international development cooperation, this is extremely beneficial as municipal officials from other countries are actually able to see a running FSM system before committing funds.

China's public support to FSM is impressive. On the one hand municipal subsidies are supplied to build biogas and composting plants, and gate fees are given per tonne of sludge received at the treatment plant (through electronic scales directly registering the weight and entered into a central monitoring unit); on the other hand environmental legislation is becoming increasingly tighter, thereby ensuring compliance. The other Chinese advantage is that the faecal sludge treatment plants also increasingly deal with food and market waste, allowing for biogas generation and fertiliser production. The biogas is typically used at the treatment plant while the fertiliser is handed back to the municipality for use in the urban green spaces.

However, the most interesting part of this model, is that the public sector support has generated interest within the private sector which has stepped in with a whole range of innovative technologies and services. With the assurance of government support, and knowing the exact amount of this, entrepreneurs are finding new and better ways to deal with faecal sludge. For instance, one company visited during this study trip had designed machinery for all steps of the process including the weighing and registering of trucks, odour control through an emptying room with rapid closing doors, air ventilation systems with bio-filters, emptying systems functioning under pressure and with automatic cleaning of pipes on the delivering trucks, and the dewatering equipment. Other companies were found to be experimenting more on product outputs which are of high value and with high consumer acceptability; for example by producing bio-char or growing fresh hanging vegetables (e.g. tomatoes, chillies) through a drip system based on ferti-irrigation. Many of these companies are also looking outside of China for business opportunities through developmental assistance and knowledge exchange programs.

For me, this trip has made it clear once more that, for a FSM system to function well and continue reinventing itself there is an obvious need for public support in terms of funding and clear regulations. Once this condition is present, crafty entrepreneurs will enter this market and continuously improve daily practices by devising innovative technologies through ongoing experimentation. Clearly for Bangladesh, these conditions are not present at the moment. Developing FSM for the urban and urbanising areas of the country will not mean merely importing some (Chinese) technology, there is a need to develop a whole system. Fortunately the topic of FSM is now high on the agenda, both nationally and internationally. BRAC and IRC will continue working on this, and many other organisations as well. But the overall take-home lesson from China remains that to truly make progress, clear public commitment will be essential.

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