Safe plumbing to the people

By Fiona Ingham

US-based non-profit organisation Plumbers Without Borders attended the World Plumbing Council Conference to participate in the global industry discussion entitled, “Reasons to support international regulations and standards for sustainable plumbing”.

Plumbers Without Borders (PWB) launched six years ago, and comprises an international database of volunteer plumbers and mechanical tradespersons. This humanitarian organisation is building a global database of plumbing and mechanical tradespersons volunteers, and is working to increase access to safe water and sanitation.

The aim of the initiative is to improve health and sanitation by connecting humanitarian organisations with volunteer tradespersons throughout the world. It goes about this by matching volunteers with projects that are committed to alleviating water and/or sanitation poverty.

Conference theme

The 2016 World Plumbing Council (WPC) Conference theme began with the belief that with an understanding of regulations and referenced international standards, a baseline can be established that will work in any application and in any country, irrespective of the environment and local authority.

Water, sanitation, energy, and environment are inextricably linked around the world and affect every basic human right. The plumbing sector’s role in providing access to water and sanitation, while ensuring that it is both designed and implemented properly, safely, and efficiently, are critical to building healthy communities, in every corner of the world.

Energy, sanitation, environment and water

Working with the support of brands American Standard/LIXIL Water Technology, the vice-president of PWB, Fred Schilling, installed the first SaTo™ safe-toilet pan in the western hemisphere in Haiti. Schilling instructed and worked with the plumbing students and staff at the HaïtiTec vocational college in Haiti to retrofit a SaTo™ in the home of a local banana farmer. Many homes in Haiti are built with pit latrines having an outside access door, but without any means to seal the home from unsanitary sewer gases and accompanying fly-borne diseases. After installing the SaTo™, this family’s home was free from foul odours and flies, providing a safe and sanitary bathroom.

Schilling described the wife’s joy at realising that their home was free from foul odours, “When I looked back at the house, she had removed all their belongings from the home and had begun to wash them. This was because she realised that their home felt clean at last.”

Schilling’s former students at HaïtiTec have now installed an additional 1 000 SaTo™ units in Haiti, transforming community health prospects, one toilet at a time. Globally, American Standard/LIXIL has one million SaTo™ products sold or in field trials in countries including Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Haiti, the Philippines, and India, granting approximately five million people access to safe and hygienic sanitation.

As international professionals in the plumbing and health sectors, we need to facilitate discussions that allow for innovation without sacrificing geopolitical and socio-economic goals. Resolving and updating existing standards and regulations should be a priority for areas that have poor or lax national standards in provisioning sustainable plumbing, Schilling said.

Regulations and standards

“Regulations and standards may also be useful in understanding, preventing or resolving increasing water rights conflicts. Population growth in urban areas worldwide is increasing exponentially, but lacking basic plumbing infrastructure precludes meeting traditional design expectations that are based on connecting to municipal water and sewer,” Domenico DiGregorio, president of PWB said.

A common thread in Schilling’s breakout presentation was for ‘out of the box’ thinking to develop solutions and to provide opportunities that enable an evolution of ideas for problem solving.

Urban and rural water and sanitation issues require innovative solutions respectful of local conditions and social customs, providing sustainable plumbing systems that work for the stakeholders at their starting point to be successful, said Schilling.  

Urban and rural water and sanitation systems need different approaches given their unique geo-sociological, cultural, and economic environments. In rural areas, biomass digesters for lower volume users offer advantages in terms of sustainability. Technological advances in transportable wastewater treatment facilities can provide cost-effective solutions for high-density inner city situations that lack infrastructure, he added. 

A primary and often seen health risk is that of cross-connections, which can contaminate potable water systems, causing illness and death. Cross-connections are preventable with regulations, standards and education, said DiGregorio. Preventing cross-connection contamination is a basic underpinning of sustainable plumbing systems, and directly correlates with building healthy communities.  

The American Society of Sanitary Engineers (ASSE) defines cross-connection as a “physical connection or arrangement between two otherwise separate [piping] systems, one of which contains potable water and the other water of questionable or unknown safety, such as steam, gas, or chemicals. There may be a flow from one system to the other, the direction of flow depending on the pressure differential between the two systems. It also describes it as unintentional connection between two different systems, for example, connections between hot and cold water piping.”

DiGregorio pointed out that more than a million children died as a result of waterborne diseases in 2015, and that this tragedy is preventable.

 Work opportunities

Another important notion raised by Schilling was that market-based solutions could effect change by providing economic pathways for communities to increase health and to grow their potential employment opportunities.

One such opportunity that emerged through collaborative efforts is a working alliance between HaïtiTec and the Andrea Bocelli Foundation, where people in a rural area benefit from the skills learned in the urban environment. This also provides economic opportunities to the students in the plumbing programme, said Schilling. The students learn how solutions can be vastly different, while at the same time employing basic plumbing concepts to provide safe water and sanitation.

Schilling emphasised that it was important as a water and plumbing community to promote the shared aims of plumbing professionals worldwide. The plumbing industry needs to commit itself to protecting potable water resources and supporting proposals for international regulations and standards, in an attempt to eliminate obstacles to sustainable plumbing.

Water is the link between the independent yet interdependent sectors of energy, the environment, and sanitation, which were the thematic pillars of WPC 2016. “Historical evidence documents that sacrificing one for the benefit of the other can lead to devastating results to human life and/or the environment,” Schilling concluded.

PWB embraces innovation, scalability, simplicity of operation and maintenance, thereby reducing system or component failure. As such, the group seeks to collaborate with other organisations and industry leaders to catalyse the abundant resources and solutions within the plumbing community towards the ultimate goal of improving global health.

“The society that scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water,” said Schilling, quoting John William Gardner (8 October 1912 and 16 February 2002), the US secretary of health, education, and welfare under President Lyndon Johnson, as well as recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. PWB is sustained by the resounding interest from plumbers and pipefitters around the world who want to participate in this global effort.

Plumbing, pipefitting, and mechanical tradespersons are indeed stewards of human health. By engaging the collective consciousness in our industry and collaborating with like-minded efforts, both locally and globally, PWB invites you to join the cause and to lend your skills in helping to improve millions of lives.   



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