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Plans to build sewage works for the 1.2 billion people in the world now living without fresh water and sanitation should be abandoned, said the incoming president of the World Water Association (WWA), Michael Rouse.
Rouse, head of Britain's drinking water inspectorate, believes sewage pipes are too expensive and too often drain into and pollute water courses. Instead, he says, the world should revert to using human solid waste as compost and fertilizer and allow liquids to drain into the ground.
Rouse is not against the United Nations' drive to halve the number of people without fresh water and sanitation by 2015, a target agreed at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg last August. However, by his calculations the target means providing these services to 140,000 new people every day, a huge task that he considers impossible by traditional means.
Rouse advocates community-led programs. While fresh water could be piped in for drinking, cooking and washing, new-style locally made toilets which separate the solid waste from the liquids could take care of sanitation. Reed beds or similar natural methods could clean the water before it is allowed to flow into the ground.
"If we started sanitation again from scratch in Britain, we would not do it the way we do now," he said. "Instead of flushing and piping all the waste away, we would collect the solids once a week like household rubbish, take it to a central depot and compost it. Eventually it would be used as fertilizer, itself a bonus in the developing world which would be able to cut down on expensive chemical fertilizers."
Rouse believes that without this fundamental change back to simpler methods the UN's hopes will fail. He and his organization will be advancing these ideas to the world's water ministers at the World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan, which begins on Sunday and is designed to turn last August's Earth Summit targets into reality.
Unlike some campaigners, Rouse does not believe water should be free. Currently, the world's poorest pay the most for their water, which is brought by vendors who charge up to 10 times the cost of piped water for a product of uncertain quality.
He says the key to success of providing water and sanitation is good government, transparent in its transactions and free from corruption. There also needs to be an independent regulator to check the quality of water.