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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 Vijayaraghavan M. Chariar (Indian Institute of Technology)
U.S. Partner: James Elser (Arizona State University)
Project Dates: August 2013 to July 2016
 

 India Partnership Picture A
Vijayaraghavan Chariar gives a talk at the Workshop of Phosphorous Research Coordination Network (PRCN) Partners at Arizona State University. (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
 

India Partnership Picture B
A worker pours fecal sludge onto farmland (Photo courtesy Dr. Drechsel).

IWMI PhD student Sharada Prasad attended a Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment workshop at IIT Delhi in July 2014 and discussed his research plans with the workshop organizers and participants. Faculty members from Drexel University and Michigan State University provided insightful comments. Sharada is now working on analyzing a portfolio of risks to which sanitation workers are exposed. The risks will be calculated for three different scenarios--manual scavenging, manual emptying, and mechanical emptying of septic tanks. During July-September 2014, Sharada interviewed government officers in Bangalore and Mangalore responsible for water, sewerage, and fecal sludge. In Bangalore, surprisingly, fecal sludge from household septic tanks does not fall within the purview of any existing government agency. In September 2014, Sharada presented his research work to the faculty of Azim Premji University of Bangalore, and on October 17 he made a presentation at the “Introducing Best Practices in Septage Management with a Focus on Hilly Regions” workshop, organized by the Asian Development Bank in partnership with the Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India. More than 100 experts from different development agencies and state and central departments attended. Thanks to the PEER grant, Sharada was able to draw the attention of the participants to the importance of recovery and reuse of nutrients from fecal sludge. 

In the coming months, interviews with utilities, farmers and truck operators will continue to better estimate the fecal sludge to fertilizer mass balance in these cities and regions. Sharada will focus in particular on interviews with farmers on their perceptions and interest in reusing safe fecal matter as fertilizer and try to estimate how much of the fertilizer so far used could be substituted. In November 2014, Sharada will be making a presentation at the Centre for Policy and Research (CPR) and Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), New Delhi. That same month, IWMI will join an offshoot of the PEER project looking at phosphorous and cities with a workshop in Hanoi. Dana Cordell and colleagues were successful in securing seed money from the International Social Science Council (as part of the Future Earth initiative) to lay the ground work to do a larger application on sustainable transformations and urban phosphorus in a cross-city comparison context. IWMI will assist with a case from Ghana. In January 2015, PI Dr. Pay Drechsel, other IWMI staff, and Sharada will be attending the Fecal Sludge Management conference in Hanoi to present their PEER research and to network with fellow researchers.
 
 
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