Warning: if you drink the water from your municipal supply, you may find the following article disturbing. But, if you also don’t think about where the waste goes when you flush your toilet, this discussion will be an eye-opener too.
For a little background, I serve as the vice president, Membership of the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE). One of ASPE’s industry partners is the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO), and IAPMO recently formed the International Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Foundation, also known as IWSH, which has a very simple and profound mission: “To improve on the human condition by fostering the basic human right of safe access to clean water and sanitation.” ASPE supports these goals too, and we support IWSH by helping our members volunteer for IWSH initiatives.
One of the main reasons I joined ASPE more than 10 years ago was the opportunity to engage with those in my profession; however, I also enjoy experiencing different places, cultures and ways of living. Over the years, I have learned about incredible plumbing systems with respect to their design and construction, but I also have realized that most of us in the U.S. take functioning plumbing for granted while many people around the world still lack access to clean water and sanitation systems.
The international Community Plumbing Challenge (CPC) program is the flagship initiative of IWSH, and it has been presented in Nashik, India and Diepsloot, South Africa. Last year’s CPC took place at an elementary school called Sekolah Dasar Negeri (SDN) Cicau 02 in Cikarang, Indonesia. At one ASPE board meeting last year, Billy Smith, FASPE, ASPE’s executive director/CEO, suggested that I consider getting involved with the CPC. After further discussion, I decided that I would like to participate if afforded the chance, which ASPE provided.
CPC2017 was comprised of two parts; the first part was called Design Week where ASPE was represented by Nicholas Hipp, CPD, who is an ASPE Young Professional (AYP) from the St. Louis Chapter. The participants of Design Week, which occurred in August 2017, were tasked with designing improvements to the sanitary and plumbing systems at the SDN 02 Cicau Elementary School. I participated in the second effort, Construction Week, last November, and our goal was to install the improvements created by the Design Week team.
Another ASPE member, Randy Lorge, was also a member of the Construction Week team. Affiliated with ASPE’s Wisconsin Chapter, Lorge is also a member of IAPMO, and he represented Fox Valley Technical College on this trip where he was a plumber and instructor.
The organizing team consisted of representatives from IWSH, IAPMO, and Healthabitat O/S, a not-for-profit that aims to improve and advance the health and standard of living of people living in poverty throughout the world, primarily through facilitating improvements in housing and living environments. The organizing team was led by Grant Stewart and included Sean Kearney, Swathi Saralaya, Roy August, and Adrian Welke and Jessica Mountain of Troppo Architects, who were instrumental in the design and very handy with the installation.
Our other U.S. volunteers were Chris Macias and Mark Hensley from Pan-Pacific Mechanical/UA Locals 78 and 398, respectively, plus Rick Winter, also of UA Local 78.
Context is important when discussing this project in terms of design and construction. Why? Because when we built the project in accordance with the efforts of the Design Week team, the systems still would not measure up to the basic plumbing and sanitary standards enjoyed in most developed countries. However, the improvements for the schoolkids and staff would be vastly improved.
The project consisted of four basic design elements, plus educational sessions on hygiene and plumbing. The school would receive a new ¾-inch municipal water supply and distribution piping, two new 500-gallon elevated water tanks with float valves and towers to support them, existing bathrooms renovated with four new squat toilets plus a gang sink with a covered roof, and finally a biological filter septic system and piping to a distribution box and then to a leach field. A future project will renovate the remaining two toilets and install four in their place.
The design needed to be simple enough to build in a rural, disadvantaged location with materials and tools that could be obtained regionally. Given that the sanitary infrastructure in the region is still developing, the maintenance of this system was, and is, a concern. IAPMO opened an office about five minutes from the school, and if not for their stewardship, this project may not endure the test of time.
Existing services and facilities
Indonesia is a unitary sovereign state and transcontinental country in Southeast Asia situated between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It also is the largest island country in the world. The school is 430 miles (692 km) south of the equator, and the weather was hot and humid due to the beginning of the rainy season. Working in the environment was a major consideration during Construction Week.
What is a volunteer to expect when traveling to the other side of the globe? The project was based on “less than clean water,” and I quickly learned to not drink any water unless it was filtered, treated, or purified. Bottled water was provided so we could remain hydrated and use of bottled water was evident everywhere. Many discarded bottles and other waste littered the sides of the roads outside of Cikarang. As you got closer to the school, debris and rubbish lined the streets of the village. The smell of burning plastic was also prevalent almost all of the time since the bottles were burned with other garbage by the villagers and the custodial staff at the school.
There is no municipal sewage system near the school, at least that I could determine. The municipal water supply is not what we would call viable because it is not reliable, and it is not potable (suitable for drinking). The water in the lake behind the school is also not fit for human consumption, but locals use it to cook, clean and drink. The kids and staff at the school used the lake water to flush their squat toilets and wash their hands.
Ironically, cellular and Internet service were, I’m embarrassed to say, better than at home. It’s unfortunate that these “glamour twins” of infrastructure are considered more important than basic water and wastewater infrastructure.
The school has 300 students and 12 staff who all shared the four existing squat toilets. A squat toilet is a ceramic or porcelain fixture that sits flush with the floor, and they are very common in Asian and African countries. Human contact with this toilet does not occur. One squats and does their business and then scoops water with their right hand from an adjacent bucket to assist the flow of solids down the fixture. Toilet paper is not used in this area; the left hand is used for this purpose. The water bucket is drained and cleaned regularly by the custodial staff. In fact, the school was very clean, construction activities notwithstanding. There was no sink for washing hands after using these facilities. The proposed project would double the number of toilets from four to eight and, more importantly, would include a gang sink outside each building where the toilets were located.
Construction Week highlights
As mentioned, the project included an educational component, and students from Indonesia, Singapore, and Australia joined the construction team. Representing the SMK 26 school in Jakarta was Mr. Budiman (“Professor,” as I called him), accompanied by Adilla Laras, Akbar, Annisa, and Ibnu. The SMK 01 school in Jakarta was represented by Iqbal, La Ode, Raihan, and Tommy. Desmond represented the Singapore Plumbing Society. Two welding students, both called Taufik, were from SMK 2 Bandung Indonesia, which was sponsored by PT. AWS Asian Welding Specialist (an Indonesian vendor of the American Welding Society). Matt Lee O’Brien, representing PICAC/Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, was our mason. Matthew Geldard-Ker, a student from the University of Western Australia, worked on many aspects of the project. Jon Wallace, a trade instructor from Swinburne University in Australia, was accompanied by Jasper Walnganhu, an Indigenous Australian and one of Jon’s students. The CPC2017 team instructed the students about the design, masonry, and carpentry used in the project, giving them skills and knowledge to increase their job opportunities. The team also provided instruction on proper sanitation and hygiene, so the locals could understand the importance of washing one’s hands.
The project involved masons, carpenters, plumbers, and a lot of manual labor to close existing masonry openings and make new ones. Excavation for the installation of new piping and the fixtures was difficult due to the tools, materials, and soil conditions at hand. Concrete was made in a diesel-powered cement mixer using six buckets of sand to two buckets of gravel to two and one-half buckets of Portland cement, and then the concrete was pushed by wheelbarrow to its point of placement. The tools in this region are not construction grade, at least not the ones we used. For instance, the wheelbarrows were prone to wheels falling off and parts coming undone.
While we were there, the municipal water supply operated only a few hours each day. I never determined if it was a water pressure issue or if the municipality interrupted the flow. To overcome the unreliable municipal water supply, the project included two new water storage solutions elevated by fabricated steel frame-welded towers adjacent to each building. Mitchell Fisch, a welder/fabricator from Australia, worked with the AWS students at IAPMO to fabricate the steel towers that supported the water tanks. Float valves at the tops of each tank ensured that the water from the new supply wouldn’t be wasted, and the tanks were sized to ensure an adequate supply if the service were to be interrupted. The new tanks replace a single tank less than half the size of the new tanks. The municipal water supply replaces the water taken from the lake with an electric pump and PVC pipe.
In the week I was there, I observed people doing their laundry in the lake, animals tied to stumps and grazing on grass adjacent to the water’s edge, and villagers fishing. Adding a septic element to the school was a significant improvement to the health and welfare of the children and staff. With the existing setup at the school, waste went directly into a pit where it either leached out or overflowed into the lake. The waste from the new toilets and sink are piped to a new packaged sewage treatment system provided by the project. The effluent from the treatment plant flows through PVC pipes to a mixing box where its distributed to a leach field. This system may not actually leach into the ground due to the high concentration of organics in the soil (the soil was thick and heavy clay). Instead, the system acts more as an evaporation field, holding wastewater until it can evaporate into the atmosphere. (The dry season lasts about nine months.)
Aidan Ward and Kade Preston from PICAC Australia ensured that the leach field was installed per the design and instructed the students on this assignment. Just about everyone in attendance participated in this effort.
What conclusions can we draw from this challenge? Simply said, we take for granted that when we open our tap, clean water flows out. When we flush our waste, it disappears and doesn’t reappear in our water supply. ASPE is dedicated to ensuring the health, welfare and safety of the public. Megan Lehtonen, managing director of IWSH, said that “access to clean water and sanitation is a basic human right, but frequently the plumbing system is forgotten.” Participation in the CPC and similar efforts at home and abroad promotes ASPE’s mission.
I share an observation that Nicholas Hipp made on his part of the project. He said, “The most humbling part of the whole experience was seeing the excitement of the children.” According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “The world has made substantial progress in child survival since 1990,” yet nearly 15,000 children under five died every day in 2016. WHO reports that childhood diarrhea due to unsafe drinking water and poor hygiene practices are major risk factors that put these children in danger. Efforts like the CPC improve the lives of children worldwide.
Anyone can make a difference, but you must take the steps to do so. ASPE members should talk to their Chapter Board Officers about volunteering and making a difference. Readers who are not members of ASPE should consider joining to see what we are all about. If you decide to volunteer, know that your efforts affect an industry, a society, and, in the case of the CPC, the lives of children. You can bet that I’ll continue to volunteer, and I hope that I can inspire others to do so too. If you have found this experience interesting, please let me know. Always stay engaged, and remember what Ronald Regan said: “We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.” =