I came across this article “Activists Discover Evidence of St. Petersburg’s River of Poop”, which relayed the recent publicity of environmental activists in St Petersburg, Russia.
In summary, the activists claimed to have flushed GPS tracers down a toilet in a suburban bathroom in St Petersburg and then plotted the flow path through open drains, canals, the river and finally into the open sea. There has been some dispute about the technical ability to do this – i.e. the data may be ‘massaged’.
The fact that I read about this action (in New Zealand) by the Russian environmental activists means they have been successful in their publicity if nothing else.
St Petersburg is certainly not the only city in the world that discharges wastewater (treated or untreated) into waterways, so the purpose of this blog post is not to single out St Petersburg out at all, but rather to examine from an infrastructure management planning point of view what is really happening in this situation.
This may be helpful to wastewater system infrastructure managers as they consider similar issues.
For the purposes of the discussion in this blog post, we will assume what the environmental activists have presented is true (it may not be) – it is certainly not a unique situation in worldwide municipal wastewater disposal systems.
From what we know and have assumed St Petersburg has a wastewater disposal level of service (at least for the suburb in question) that involves the discharge of untreated wastewater into a series of waterways that finally reach the bay.
The environmental activists do not like this level of service and they are agitating (through their actions) for the level of service to change.
It is highly unlikely that they are offering to pay for the service level change they presumably want.
It is useful to look at issues like this from an infrastructure management levels of service point of view.
There are several questions we can ask:
- Does the actual level of service observed meet legal, regulatory, permit or agreed on utility management standards for this city?
If the level of service does not meet the required standards then there is a service level gap, and closing out this gap should be addressed in your infrastructure lifecycle asset management plan – presumably by spending new capital to upgrade the wastewater system.
If there is no service level gap against legal requirements then the activists may be agitating to change the law – this is a political question that must be addressed at a political level.
- Does the utility have any long-term plans to change or address the levels of service?
If the answer is yes, and these plans have been costed and funded, then the issue being raised by the activists is around timing of work, not the fundamental service level itself – this can be communicated as part of the discussion of how this work is proceeding, and the staging of project that is needed to complete the project.
- Has the utility already undertaken political and/or public consultation on the level of service?
If the answer is yes, and priorities and programs have been agreed as a result of the consultation, then the environmental activists are a small ‘pressure’ group that is trying to impose their view or modify the political and/or public view as a result of their actions.
If the answer around consultation is no – then is this appropriate within your legal/political context.
Certainly, within democracies, it is better to have wide stakeholder (and those who will pay) agreement that capital work is necessary and desirable before commencing expensive programs and projects.
I am sure to comment regarding stakeholder agreement applies to all societies, it is just the consultation and deliberation mechanisms will vary from society to society.
What is important is that wider stakeholder participation is sought in these discussions, rather than just the voice of one view or opinion.
- Is the actual level of service observed appropriate?
This is where infrastructure asset management techniques can be very helpful in the discussion.
Has your municipality (St Petersburg, Russia in this example) developed a long-term strategy and policy around the development of the city and associated infrastructure?
This may include an examination of the city economy and economic drivers.
How does this observe the actual level of service fit within the longer-term plans and aspirations of the city:
- It may be that changes are needed to meet the longer-term plans of the municipality and surrounding region
- It may be that legislation and ordinances require to update or change to facilitate the meeting of the longer-term plans and aspirations
- It may be that longer-term funding arrangements need to be put in place to realize the municipalities longer-term plans and aspirations
Finally in this brief levels of service discussion
- What levels of service are achievable?
For St Petersburg what we don’t know looking in from the outside – what service levels are achievable?
This becomes part of the discussion and evaluation mix, and of course, will vary from municipality to municipality.
In summary – using the example of the information provided by the environmental activists in St. Petersburg, Russia we can see that infrastructure management level of service analysis such as this can be used to assist in a holistic and longer-term analysis of wider municipal service delivery.
This holistic and longer-term analysis can then lead to sustainable programs of action for the municipality.
PHOTO CREDIT: Kanal Griboyedova, St. Petersburg by Edmund Gall via Creative Commons. The photo was cropped to fit website requirements.