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Partnerships for enhanced engagement in research (PEER) SCIENCE
Cycle 2 (2012 Deadline)

Fecal sludge and urine reuse in agriculture: opportunities for addressing phosphorus needs in India

PI: Pay Drechsel (International Water Management Institute), with co-PI P. Sudhakar (Haritha Association for Learning from Environment) (Years 1 and 2 co-PI Dr. Vijayaraghavan Chariar, Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi)
U.S. Partner: James Elser (Arizona State University)
Project Dates: August 2013 to May 2017 (portion at IWMI completed June 2016)
 

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Focus group discussion with farmers. (Photo courtesy Dr. Drechsel).

India’s rapid urbanization and population growth have made food security a high policy priority and is putting significant pressure on the agriculture sector, where poor and marginal farmers especially suffer from high fertilizer prices. It is therefore imperative for India like other developing countries to explore alternative nutrient sources. With changing resource flows to cities, urban waste offers a variety of options for resource recovery. While closed-loop processes are promoted across the globe, farmers in the states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, as well as other parts of Southern India, are already using fecal sludge from urban on-site sanitation facilities (Verhagen et al., 2012; Srikantaiah, 2012). The informal sector has turned widespread lack of treatment facilities for sludge derived from septic tanks (CSE, 2011, 2012) from a serious environmental burden into an agricultural asset. The sludge comes straight from the septic tanks, and instead of being dumped into rivers, is dried ("treated") on farms before use, mostly on plantation crops. Considering the declining global phosphorus reserves (Cordell et al., 2009), treated fecal sludge, and in particular urine, can constitute a significant sources of phosphorus for crops. However, the practice is not without environmental risks. To advise authorities on options for how to safeguard human and environmental health (Drechsel et al., 2010) while also looking at the potential benefits, data are needed to understand the current scale of reuse, its potential benefit, environmental tradeoffs and limitations, and a sensitive approach for moving an informal sector activity into the formal sector.
 
The latter challenge is currently being addressed by an already-funded IWMI project in Karnataka, in close collaboration with WHO, which will support the establishment of business models for sludge reuse, safe reuse guidelines, and Sanitation Safety Plans through stakeholder dialogues. This PEER Science project will feed data into the dialogue and contribute at the international level to the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded network on “Coordinating phosphorus research to create a sustainable food system” (NSF award CHE-1230603) under the leadership of ASU, which will backstop the activities and assist in knowledge dissemination. A longer term impact is expected in view of food security and environmental protection, including empirically based recommendations for addressing the looming crisis of dwindling phosphorus reserves. Phosphorus recovery from otherwise wasted resources is important for sustainable land management and food security. Introducing cost recovery options into the sanitation service chain would have positive spill-over for community, public health and the environment, as uncontrolled use of fecal sludge is a major source of water pollution and a key public health threat.
 
Summary of Recent Activities
 

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A worker pours fecal sludge onto farmland (Photo courtesy Dr. Drechsel).

Co-PI Vijayaraghavan Chariar visited Arizona State University (ASU) January 14-19, 2016, to participate in the Phosphorous Research Coordination Network Annual Global Partners Meeting. Dr. Chariar has initiated discussions with colleagues at the ASU Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives program on establishing hubs for a “Resource Innovation Solutions Network” in India. Meanwhile, the planned fecal sludge management (FSM) survey in Delhi could not be conducted at the scale at which it was planned, as small FSM operators have largely refused to participate in the survey because they are operating their businesses and disposing of fecal waste in contravention of established environmental norms. A contact has been established with the president of the Sewerage Workers’ Union in Hyderabad, by which Dr. Chariar and his team hope to overcome the challenge of getting city-scale data on present FSM practices. In the meantime, preliminary work has been initiated on business models for urine harvesting and nutrient recovery.

On the IWMI side of the project, PhD student Sharada Prasad has completed his fieldwork in India and is now back on campus at the University of California, Berkeley. Over the past two years he travelled to seven different cities in various parts of India to speak to government officials, city authorities, truck operators, sanitation workers, farmers, and farm workers. He conducted close to 120 qualitative interviews and observed 35 sanitation workers and 25 farm workers for his study. In late 2015, he designed and carried out a survey related to fecal sludge reuse, with the objectives being to understand perceptions of farmers and farm workers regarding fecal sludge reuse and determine their willingness to pay for such material. His work in the coming months will focus on analyzing the data collected and writing publishable papers and his dissertation.

A joint paper with IWMI’s U.S. PEER partners on “Total Value of Phosphorus Recovery” has been resubmitted to Environmental Science & Technology. The work of Dr. Chariar’s team has been published in the South Asian Journal of Experimental Biology, 5(6), 205-221, entitled “Process Optimization for Sequential Recovery of N, P, K from Human Urine.“
 
Link to video of a January 2015 project presentation by Sharada Prasad: https://youtu.be/4ZW9jCqvUS8?t=14m50s.  
 
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