In Lowndes County, Alabama, many septic systems are old, leaking, or have failed completely.
Problems thought to have been solved at the turn of the 20th century have again surfaced, mostly in the form of hookworm infecting many children living in these rural communities.
Often this is merely because they are playing in their backyards among raw sewage.
Lowndes County has been on a health and sanitation watchlist since 2011. Not much has improved over the last four years. The solution requires money, which is the one thing these communities do not have.
Circle of Blue reports:
“The communities don’t have the funds for wastewater treatment,” Flowers told Circle of Blue. “They have no resources for that. They are leaving it to the homeowner.”
Homeowners often do not have the means either. A new septic system may cost a third or more of a household’s annual income.
A few towns have received federal support recently to expand sewer systems. Hayneville, the county seat, secured a $US 342,210 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2013 to upgrade a sewer system that was installed in the 1980s. Mosses, a smaller town, received $US 350,000 from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs in 2012 to connect 90 homes to a sewer.
Sewers are expensive, though, and securing funding has become more difficult because of federal budget cuts. In 1982, the first year of the Community Development Block Grant small cities program, Alabama received $US 31.7 million ($US 78.1 million in 2015 dollars) to distribute to communities like Mosses. This year, after a steady downward slide, the state received $US 21.5 million, according to Shabbir Olia, unit chief for the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, which handles federal grants.
“If there is no money, what do you do?” Olia asked. “There aren’t too many ways to address it. State funding is going down too.”
Flowers is hoping that a competition to design affordable, small-scale treatment units that work in the Black Belt soil will bear fruit. The competition begins next year. The winners could help not just Lowndes but the state as a whole. An American Society of Civil Engineers analysis released this month claims that one-quarter of the septic systems in Alabama are failing.”
The problem of inadequate sanitation systems is widespread across the world, including parts of rural USA as noted in the article above.
In financially constrained times, attaining access to grants, loans or other funds can be difficult, especially if the income level of the community being considered is too low to sustain on-going operation and maintenance on installed systems.
Design competitions, such as the one outlined in the article can help with development of creative solutions, and these can feed into wider industry practice development and implementation.
One observation can be made with certainty – doing nothing will not improve sanitation where it is lacking, nor the associated public health outcomes.
If you are an infrastructure asset management practitioner working with such communities, what do you think can be done to improve the situation and associated outcomes?
PHOTO CREDIT: Jimmy Emerson via Flickr Creative Commons License.