Guest author

Waste is not a thing that's made, but a thing that's done

Sri Lanka
East Asia and Pacific
Europe and Central Asia
South Asia
8. Apr 2016

I was fortunate enough to participate in the UN ESCAP’s Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development this week. The forum included a number of informative sessions in which representatives affirmed their countries’ commitments to progress while discussing the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals. They shared news of impacts from things like climate change that their citizens are already dealing with, and others that are viewed as serious risks.

It was interesting to learn of the different challenges faced by individual countries, but it wasn’t long before I started looking for the chance to dig into the weeds on issues—to see what was being tried and what had been learned. When everyone seems to be mentioning the expectation of future problems with things like drought, I eventually take the hint and want to start doing something about it. Fortunately, there was an engaging session on SDG 6 (Water & Sanitation) that filled that need for those of us who were itching to roll up our sleeves.

The session featured speakers from multiple ASEAN nations (listed below), who spoke of their local challenges, and projects that are driving progress. The panel opened with a discussion on water as the first speaker advised us on the growing difficulties posed by drought in Sri Lanka. He shared that many Sri Lankan farmers submerge their fields as a method of weed control, but that this is a poor use of water resources in a country that is dealing with increasing issues from drought. He also told us about efforts to harvest rain water, as well as the benefits gained from using UN ESCAP provided satellite imaging which helps them forecast and plan for these challenges.

Dr. Sonali Senaratna Sellamuttu works for the International Water Management Institute, an engineering organization that focuses on technical solutions. Dr. Sellamuttu let us in on the key to success in her projects. She said it’s not the technology, but the hard work necessary to achieve social inclusion. The technology has to work, obviously, but thinking that you can drop off a “winning” technical solution, and that all will go well from there, is asking for trouble. Dr. Sellamuttu discussed waste water irrigated agricultural projects in India, which bring economic benefits, but potential health risks. These are currently informal systems which lack expertise to ensure that waste is being properly processed.

Multiple speakers discussed the challenges of managing watersheds across boundaries which echoed a conversation I recently had on Twitter with futurist Stowe Boyd, in which we questioned whether the historical underpinnings of current geopolitical boundaries might be outweighed by the current reality. We typically think of this being a downstream issue, but as one speaker mentioned, those living upstream (and I’d add “outstream”) can be negatively impacted by downstream actions as witnessed by the effects of management efforts during the extreme flooding experienced here in Bangkok during 2011.

Overall, the message around water was that we need to develop better systems of coordination and cooperation now, before we run into the brick wall of water constraints that we appear to be headed towards. Transparency and trust were cited as necessities, and the three-legged stool of governance, technological progress, and an inclusive approach was cited as critical to managing this precious resource.

The panel then turned to the flip side of SDG 6, sanitation. Time constraints left the topic with less time than desired and I wondered if this wouldn’t be a recurring issue for this particular goal. Knowing that we can’t live without water for more than a few days, I’m afraid it will always bubble up close to the top (and well it should given its importance). But what about sanitation? We won’t die as quickly for lack of sanitation, but the potential for disease that it brings, and the degradation of quality of life are well known. So while we did not have as much time to discuss sanitation for as long as we might have liked, I was happy to hear the group agree to reconvene to discuss it further.

In the time we had left, Ms. Santha Sheela Nair told the group about interesting projects like the Human Urine Bank. For a Zero Waste practitioner, this was a whole new world to consider. Participants in that project were paid for their wastes (for the high nitrogen content) that was deployed as fertilizer in agriculture. To have joined in with numerous dignitaries who were giggling like school children at the prospect, was a highlight of my career. We learned that the farmers who participated in the project contend that their bananas taste better than those of their competitors. Ms. Nair also informed us about ECOSAN toilets, “A sanitation system that offers affordable comfortable and hygienic toilet facilities that provide disposal and potential reuse of urine and feces following treatment, and grey water discharge, among other benefits. Urine can be collected for the aforementioned banking project, and feces can be composted as well. Ms. Nair closed stating that “If you must put fecal matter into waste water, use it in agro-forestry. Timber grows beautifully!”


Mr. Jack‐Sim, President of the World Toilet Organization (WTO), discussed the need to make ECOSAN toilets a pleasant experience (if it smells awful, no one will use it). To keep these clean and functioning, he has to engage the local community to find people who will provide ongoing maintenance to keep the toilets in use and he added the need for a closed loop, managed system fits in as part of the need for holistic planning. The wrongheadedness of “dumping solutions on people” was a recurring theme. Mr. Sim further reiterated the need to decouple sanitation with water.

The panel moderator, Mr. Ravi Narayanan, Chair of the Asia-Pacific Water Forum Governing Council asked us to look at the big picture. “Is there a pattern emerging? If so, how can the people in the region use them?” He asked us to try to understand these issues from the macro level which requires an understanding of the workings of the relevant institutions, their collective capacities and those of the individuals that work within them if we want to make significant progress. Mr. Narayanan closed the panel by asking, “How can we promote the role of women in leadership positions around these issues?”

I’ve listed a few key takeaways below, but before you get to that, I wanted to share a comment from the session that stuck with me. “In the old days, the state functioned for human needs. Today, society functions for human greed." As one who writes frequently about inequality, I can’t argue the point, but I’m hoping that recent stirrings (like the SDGs, and the World Bank's announcement that it will spend 28% of its investments directly on climate change mitigation efforts) are signalling a brighter future.

Key Takeaways:

  • We have to plan to holistically fulfil demand including ongoing system maintenance
  • We tend to build and blame, rather than figuring out why things are not being used
  • We should expect to have far less water available by 2050
  • We have to start cooperating now
  • Trust and transparency are becoming increasingly important
  • The trust and systems we build now will be invaluable when future crises arrive
  • We need to collectively manage resources like water by basin
  • Learning from success is great, but there’s often more to learn from failures
  • Urine can be a “bankable” asset


Panel Members

Moderator: Mr. Ravi Narayanan, Vice Chair, Governing Council, Asia‐Pacific Water


  • H.E. Mr. Vasantha Senanayake, State Minister of Irrigation and Water 7 Resources of Sri Lanka
  • Ms Santha Sheela Nair, Vice Chairman of the Tamil Nadu State Planning Commission, India
  • Mr. Jack‐Sim, President, World Toilet Organization, Singapore
  • Dr. Sonali Senaratna Sellamuttu, Office Head & Senior Researcher ‐ Livelihood Systems, International Water Management Institute (IWMI)
  • Mr. Abdullah Keizrul Bin, Chairperson, Network of Asian River Basin Organizations (NARBO)

This post is a part of the April 2016 series on Inclusive Businesses and Sanitation. View the whole series for more business examples, research and insights on sustainable sanitation solutions.