Alister Doyle

Alister Doyle

OSLO - "The history of man is reflected in the history of sewers," French 19th century author Victor Hugo wrote in Les Miserables. "The sewer is the conscience of the city... A sewer is a cynic. It tells everything."

Judged by its sewers, the world is not doing well. Only three in 10 people now have a connection to a public sewerage system.

And with the world's population expanding, a goal of improving sanitation by 2015 is slipping out of reach, despite progress in nations such as China and a few big contracts for firms such as Veolia or Suez to build waste treatment plants in cities from La Paz to Rabat.

Experts say a part of the solution, especially to cut waterborne diseases for the rural poor, may lie in renewed and smarter exploitation of nature, for example through plants or soil bacteria that feed on waste.

Novel schemes include a plan to build an artificial wetland at a jail in Mombasa, Kenya, to process sewage from 4000 inmates that now flows untreated into a creek, or ponds in South Africa where algae purify waste and are then used as fertiliser.

"About 90percent of the sewage and 70percent of the industrial waste in developing countries are being discharged untreated into water courses," said Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme.

"Understanding the ability of peat lands, of marshes, of wetlands, to play an integral part in filtering ... waste water is often overlooked," he said.

The UN set a millennium goal of halving the proportion of people with no access to sanitation, even simple latrines rather than sewers, by 2015 from 40 percent of humanity or 2,6billion people now: "Africa is probably struggling the most," Steiner said.

A 2007 scorecard showed the sanitation goal was likely to be missed by 600million people worldwide on current trends. This year is the UN's International Year of Sanitation.

France's Veolia, the world's biggest listed water supplier, says East Asia and the Pacific are progressing best.

In Africa, the company's only big contract so far is to supply water and sanitation to three cities in Morocco, with investments totalling R22billion.

"A lot of countries underestimate the effect of sanitation on health," said Pierre Victoria, head of International Institutional Relations at Veolia Water.

UN data show a child dies as a result of poor sanitation every 20 seconds, that is 1,5million preventable deaths a year from diseases such as diarrhoea or cholera.

In many countries "we are disappointed by the lack of interest of the politicians about water issues," Victoria said.

"We'd like to have new contracts in developing countries but we need contractual, legal and financial security."

Proper sewers, with pipelines and treatment plants, are prohibitively costly for many nations. As a sign of low ambitions, the logo of the International Year of Sanitation shows a latrine built above a hole in the ground.

Among lower-cost projects, prisoners at Shimo La Tawa jail in Mombasa, will start work on an artificial wetland where plants will act as a sewage processing plant in an experimental scheme.

"This technology costs very little both for construction and maintenance," said Peter Scheren, manager of joint UNEP-Global Environment Facility projects in Africa.

The scheme will also include a fish farm, fed by waste water purified by wetlands. - Reuters