Floods and Droughts Spell Big Problems for Sanitation Systems

by Larry Losoncy, PhD

This is not a pleasant series of topics to contemplate. Nobody likes floods. Most people think floods are unpredictable and related to no known causes, just whims of nature. When it rains too much there is a flood. When big tropical storms hit land there is flooding. End of story. Droughts? They happen for no particular reason except that rain and snow stop for a long period of time.

Sanitation systems: what has that to do with floods and droughts?

Actually, these three topics are interrelated. Floods are predictable, as are the patterns of precipitation that cause flooding. Droughts are predictable, as are the weather patterns and climate changes that limit precipitation. Sanitation systems are very much related to discussion of floods and droughts because both floods and droughts interfere with the operation of sanitation systems.

The world right now is experiencing crisis-level droughts, although not everyone is equally aware of the crisis. A huge part of the continent of Africa has for many years been in drought. Hundred of millions of people are affected, to the point that well water is running out, reservoirs are running dry, streams are disappearing and groundwater is becoming scarce. The lack of water for irrigation threatens starvation. Generation of electricity from hydro dams in some regions is nearly impossible. Centralized sanitation and water treatment plants become too expensive to build and operate when there is so little water and power available and the population is impoverished by drought to the point that nobody can afford to pay for using the plants.

Flooding wreaks havoc with sanitation. Lagoon systems flood, pouring out sewage into the surrounding land areas, creeks, rivers, lakes and seashore. Individual septic systems become dysfunctional with ground too saturated to percolate. Disease becomes the immediate danger, while longer term deposits of silt, muck, chemicals and a variety of toxins leave all systems gummed up, polluted and generally in need of expensive repair. No matter where one stands in the various debates about the causes of climate change and global warming and the long term predictions, there can be no debate about the impact of weather patterns on sanitation systems: bad weather is always devastating to sanitation.

36 states in the United States are also in drought. Because the western states have been in drought for so many years climatologists are now beginning to declare that the West has undergone climate change: it’s no longer considered just a drought but a change of weather patterns that could last several hundred years. A significant aspect of these global changes in weather patterns is that with increased temperatures comes not only less frequent rain but much larger and more intense storms when there is precipation. Recent years have featured such great storms: ferocious blizzards, intense flooding rains and huge tropical rain events, all resulting in flooding.Large treatment plants become inundated, spewing out untreated sewage.

Two trends are observable in the sanitation field as a result of these weather patterns. The first is that increasingly in both the United States and globally there is increased emphasis on utilizing on-site sanitation systems, especially those that put nothing into the ground. Protection of groundwater quality, because groundwater is becoming scarce and because the quality of groundwater is being compromised, has become a very high priority. Less waste going into the ground, including sanitary waste, has become one important method of protecting ground water. Cheaper methods of treating sanitation may also dictate less use of energy-consuming central treatment plants. Two facts are certain: water will become much more expensive and energy, especially electricity and fossil fuels, will continue to cost more with each passing year. As a result, on-site treatment systems that put nothing into the ground and use little or no water, electricity or fossil fuel, will become increasingly the systems of choice.

As the world heads towards a human population of nine billion people the world’s water crisis will worsen, rapidly. Usable water, on a planet made up of predominantly water, will ironically become very expensive. The world will always be able to convert salt water to usable water, but the cost will be enormous. Once again the issue of sanitation comes into play: it will not be economically viable to use high costing water for flushing except as a luxury for those few who will be able to afford it. The importance of water for irrigation would drive the cost of water upward even if there were no droughts on the planet. This is because of the vast amount of water required to raise enough food for the world. Water in the way we use it now is not an unlimited quantity. The bulk of water for irrigation comes from aquifers. The aquifers are rapidly being depleted. Next will likely come an increased sharing of water in lakes and deep rivers, necessitating a very expensive system of piping and transport. These sources of water are also limited and diminishing, in part because the aquifers with which they are interlocked are being diminished by too much usage.

The headlines are all about global warming and drought. A few headlines are about the impact of warming and drought on the cost of water. There are no headlines about the implications for sanitation – yet.

The future in sanitation lies with on-site, waterless, low energy systems.


Larry Losoncy is the president of Clean Up America, Inc. The company manufactures and markets  The Sanitizer™ non-discharge, evaporative toilet.  To learn more about The Sanitizer™ please go to http://www.cuaproducts.com.