Where Does Your Feces Go?

By Michelle Tolson

Do you know where your feces is disposed of? Well, according to Urban Alternative, Ulaanbaatar ger district residents know. However, many city dwellers do not.
Urban Alternative (urban –alternative [dot] org) is a media documentation project created by French-born Frederic Ouziel, Damien Boutaud, and Charles Kohlheim. The project is self-funded at the moment, though courting corporate sponsorship for documented research which is conceived to “raise awareness of sustainable urban development.” Originating from Paris, the researchers want to see on a comparative level how cities are managing development, their water supplies and sanitation. They plan to document ten different cities’ water supply and sanitation networks.
The project was created by Kohlheim, an engineer by trade who is the director of the consulting firm, Al Environment, which specializes in environmental issues in the construction of buildings. Al Environment is partnered with Urban Alternative. Boutaud, the project manager, is also an engineer. Ouziel is contributing to the technical aspects of taking video of the venture. He is co-founder of the production company, Artisans du Films, which is also partnered with the project. Back in Paris, Emille Bigot assists with the website, along with Tilly Manual.
Kohlheim says the freedom to pitch a ger wherever a Mongolian citizen wants to is built into the country’s constitution. This freedom impacts city planning however, contributing to complex situation where the ger districts have put the city over-capacity for sanitation. The soil in ger district areas has become tainted from sewage. The team notes there is an interrelation between a city’s water supply and sewage treatment. They mentioned the research of another water/sanitation project in India which asked city dwellers where their water came from, and conversely—what happened to their feces. Many city dwellers, apparently, do not know what happens their city’s sewage. However, the Urban Alternative team noted that Ulaanbaatar ger dwellers tend to be in the know regarding both their water and human waste as they have a direct relationship with both accessing water and disposing of waste.
Water is obtained from water kiosks and water trucks in the ger districts. Conferring together while interviewed, the Urban Alternative team said there are about 800 water kiosks for about 700,000 people living in ger districts, which populate over half of the city, or 60 percent of Ulaanbaatar. This issue points to a distribution problem for the water supply to the outlying areas of the city.
Peat latrines dispose of human waste in the ger districts but because of the volume of the population, this pollutes the soil. Owing to the lack of water in the area, wells are dug but they need to be dug at least 20 meters away from the latrines to avoid the soil contamination—which the team says are currently not dug far enough. Ger districts in the capital have higher rates of hepatitis A compared to the national average, according to Urban Alternative’s research with Pier Francesco Donati, architect, program manager at Action Against Hunger.
A study published March of 2012 by the Water Operators’ Partnerships (WOP) in Asia, titled “Case Study III: Water Supply and Sewerage Authority of Ulaanbaatar and Vitens Evides International” sheds further light on the capital’s water supply situation. The Water Supply and Sewerage Authority of Ulaanbaatar City, or more simply known as USUG, supplies water for about 90 percent of the capital’s population, which by the study’s estimate is about 1.3 million people. Of this number, apartment dwellers and others in the piped water network in the city center receive 40 per cent of the water distributed through pipes, another 20 percent are supplied through kiosks connected to pipelines, while 30 percent obtain water through truck-supplied kiosks where residents purchase and fill their containers. The kiosks are located in the ger areas. Private vendors and NGOs supply the remaining 10 per cent of the city’s population, according to the WOP report.
USUG is owned by the City Property Department of the Municipality of Ulaanbaatar. Established in 1959, the operation handles the drinking water supply and wastewater treatment for Ulaanbaatar. Water is supplied from groundwater pumped from four wells and is chlorinated before being distributed. According to the WOP report, the water supplied through USUG is considered relatively safe. However, the kiosks supplied through trucks were found to be contaminated when the study began in 2007, an issue which seems to be mostly addressed presently as the kiosks were updated.
The Urban Alternative team said currently there is no independent structure to test the water in the city for contaminants except for university researchers, NGOs and organizations such as UNICEF and the World Bank. The WOP report would be an example of an outside group testing for contaminants; however, their report did not seem to cover small wells dug in the city, but rather the four main wells supplying the main population.
This lack of comprehensive monitoring leads to misinformation at times. For example, in April of this year, a university in the U.S. reportedly found high levels of uranium in some wells tested in Ulaanbaatar. Later, a local researcher told the UB Post that this information was incorrect and that the water supply was considered safe. The WOP study noted that pollutants come from tanneries and dairy farms, but not from radioactive contaminants as Ulaanbaatar does not use radioactive energy. The same WOP report found that some refuse from coal factories can have low levels of radioactivity, however. Exactly where and what is contaminated remains unclear.
Ulaanbaatar’s sewage is treated by USUG but the WOP report noted that the facilities were old and out-dated, and utilized beyond the intended capacity. An interview published by the UB Post in July with Z. Batbayar, Vice Director of the Water Authority, revealed that only 75 percent of the raw sewage of the city is being purified, while the remaining amount is being pumped into the Tuul River.
In their own research on the sewage treatment of the city, the Urban Alternative team attempted to interview the director of USUG, who they say they were unable to reach, except briefly by phone. However, they extensively interviewed locals in the ger district of the 6th Khoroo, as well as Buyabkhuu Batdelger, Head of the Production and Service Department of the Governor’s Office of Sukhbaatar District. They also worked with the French NGO, Action Against Hunger (Action Contre la Faim) and were assisted by Michael Morrow of Steppe Learning LLC. Speaking with the documentary crew, some of the mystery of the sanitation and the water supply system not adequately covered by USUG is unveiled. Kohlheim says the poor infrastructure is to be expected in a city so young. Contrasting Ulaanbaatar with European cities, the rapid pace of development here has been very quick—over just twenty years—as opposed to the slow process seen in Europe. These infrastructure issues will be addressed and the government is aware of the limitations. Kohlheim’s impression is that the government wants to make changes and has “ideas” which are “not precise” but, regardless, have “big plans” as to how to resolve the problem.
Urban Alternative has finished filming and are currently editing the project. They plan to release the video in about two weeks—the beginning of September. They are working in their native language, French, but when asked if they might put subtitles in English of their film, they said they are considering it. The Ulaanbaatar project features some English spoken during the filmed interviews. For those interested in learning more about the project, fortunately google-translate works well for Urban Alternative’s French website, which offers an interesting background on the initiative (urban-alternative [dot] org). The project is also listed on facebook under that name.
Initially, the Urban Alternative team visited Marrakech, Morocco in April of this year and filmed interviews of the city’s water and sanitation system. The Marrakech video was used to launch their website (uploaded in June 2012). Yet Ulaanbaatar is the beginning of their further year-long ten city odyssey, documenting water and sanitation systems around the world. The next scheduled cities are in India: New Delhi (Sept 2012), and Varanasi (Oct 2012). After India, their schedule according to their website is: Bangkok, Thailand (Nov 2012), Manila, Philippines (Dec 2012), Melbourne, Australia (Jan 2013), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (March 2013), Manaus, Brazil (April 2013), and Los Angeles, USA (May 2013)—ending their trip in Paris (Aug 2013).
This interesting and unusual project will help to create a cross-cultural comparison spanning nearly a dozen cities—which will help answer the ignored question: where do our feces go? And how does this impact our water supply? In Ulaanbaatar at least we know. Sort of.

Short URL: http://ubpost.mongolnews.mn/?p=721

Posted by on Aug 28 2012. Filed under Community. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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