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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 (Haritha Association for Learning from Environment)
U.S. Partner: James Elser (Arizona State University)
Project Dates: August 2013 to November 2016

2-475_focus group discussion with farmers
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

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

At the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, research in the third quarter of 2015 focused primarily on assessing the potential impact of nutrient recovery on fertilizer import substitution. A review paper on possibilities of nutrient recovery from human urine and substitution of imports of phosphorous is under preparation and expected to be complete by the end of the year. Dr. Chariar and his team are also evaluating existing models of fecal sludge disposal in four cities—Ahmedabad, Delhi, Bengaluru, and Chennai—and assessing various business models for safe reuse of nutrients. This is a topic already addressed by IWMI, which allows for cross-learning. An additional staff member, Ms. Indu Yadav, has been recruited to join the project from September through December 2015 to help with the survey process. PhD student Sharada Prasad is currently managing a survey of 2,200 farmers and 700 farm workers in 19 villages surrounding Dharwad city. The survey has three main objectives. The first is to understand the correlation, if any, between a farmer/owner’s inclination to use Fecal Sludge Fertilizer (FSF) and farming characteristics such as wealth, land ownership, types of crops grown, religion, caste, and perceptions of safety. The second aim is to quantify the microbial risks to which farm workers are exposed due to the use of animal or human waste-based fertilizers. Finally, the survey is designed to help understand farmers’ preferences and willingness to pay for treated FSF and the willingness of farm workers to work with the material. The survey was piloted in August 2015 and launched in late September, after enumerators were recruited and trained. Despite some minor problems with outdated sampling lists and respondents who cannot see or hear well, the survey is going well, with about 90 percent of those asked to participate responding enthusiastically. The farm owner and worker survey will continue during the last quarter of the year, and a fecal sludge management survey will also be conducted in Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, and Ahmedabad, including separate survey forms for homeowners, fecal sludge truck operators, municipal officials, and environment health officials.

On the outreach side, co-PI Prof. Chariar presented a lecture at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in July 2015 and a keynote lecture at Lady Irwin College, University of Delhi, in September. That same month, he also spoke on “Frugal Innovations in Sanitation” as part of a sustainability workshop at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, and on “Design and Innovation for the Pee and Poo Sector” as part of the first-year engineering course “Introduction to Engineering” at IIT Delhi.

In October, the PEER team will host a visiting delegation from Arizona State University for an Indo-U.S. Roundtable on Sustainability Partnerships, which will feature sessions at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi (October 16), and the Centre for Environment Education, Ahmedabad (October 19). In November, Sharada Prasad will revisit Mangalore, Sirsi, Chitradurga, and Tumkur to update the sanitation data collected last year. By end of December, with the updated data, Sharada will create updated fecal sludge flow diagrams (SFD) for Sirsi, Mangalore, Chitradurga, Tumkur, Dharwad, and Bangalore. The data from the survey and the information from the qualitative interviews will be used, along with the SFDs to develop a framework for estimating the potential for FSF reuse in the region.
Link to video of a January 2015 project presentation by Sharada Prasad:  
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