Rural Septage Management
We were contacted by the World Bank regarding a septage truck monitoring project in Egypt. A larger infrastructure aid package called Sustainable National Rural Sanitation Program (SRSSP) has been approved to improve rural sanitation services by connecting more households to a centralised piped sewerage system.
However, due to distances, some households in remote areas and ‘satellite’ villages would continue to have their septic tanks serviced by collection trucks, which often dump the untreated sewerage into the canals that fed into the Nile River. This has huge environmental and heath impacts, including spreading human-transmittable diseases.
So part of the conditions of the aid package was to develop and implement a political, financial and technological framework that provide incentives and monitor the trucks to ensure they discharged the septage at designated locations, therefore prevent illegal dumping in the Nile.
Not Just a Matter of Flushing Toilets
Sewage infrastructure is a big problem in rural Egypt where people get separated into the haves and the have-nots. Homes connected to a sewage network with flushing toilets are seen as a status symbol and modern, while those that use septic tanks with no flushing toilets are looked down on. It’s not just a matter of flushing toilets however.
There’s a number of underlying factors that contribute to the situation.
Historically, the rural villages have often developed and grown organically over many years, and so the villagers created their own basic infrastructure to accompany this growth.
The sewage networks that connect to treatment centres are government subsidized, and so the handling of sewage costs about one-third the cost of servicing septic tanks which are serviced by independent companies. Many families end up spending a significant part of their earnings just on having their septic tank serviced, which is a huge economic toll.
On top of that, the independent service providers that service the septic tanks are paid on a per trip basis. The septage is pumped mobile tanks pulled by tractors, and since these are slow vehicles, if they take the septage to proper treatment facilities further away, they lose out on potential money because of the time it takes to travel back and forth.
So the independent contractors dump the septage into canals closer by, which then empty into the Nile River. This allows them to service more homes and increase their incomes. The practise is so widespread that many don’t even know it’s illegal.
GPS and Liquid Level Monitoring System
We were brought in by World Bank to consult for and assist the Egyptian government in how technology could be used as part of this larger financial and political approach to stop the practise.
We developed a system that tracks the GPS location, and liquid level of the septage trucks. If the system detects a slow leak or sudden discharge at co-ordinates that didn’t match the designated drop off point, it sends an alert via 3G to the relevant officials. It also maintains a log on a microSD card, in case communications is ever lost. Additionally we weren’t allowed to access power systems on the existing contractor trucks so the system had to be completely self-contained.
The complete design included 3G cellular communications, a sonar-based liquid level sensor, GPS, solar panel, lithium-ion batteries and microSD card in an industrial waterproof enclosure.
We also collect the temperature and humidity inside the enclosure, and system diagnostics including battery levels and solar levels that allow us to measure performance over time.
All of data gets transmitted via 3G cellular via the Etisalat network to a server on the internet but located in-country.
On the IT side, the data needs to be routed government servers where each governorate (similar to a state) would have an IT team to manage the incoming data and monitor for illegal septage dumping of the trucks. Coordinating the IT teams of the governorates would be handled at a government level, however this is in development. In the meantime, we wrote a back end server system based on a python web framework and database server. This allows us to test the hardware, data acquisition, and communications functionality, ingest the data, record it, and display it in a structured way. The system is functional, piloted and will be undergoing a wider pilot rollout.
Technology is (Usually) the Easiest Problem to Solve
In almost all of the projects we work on, the technology problem is the easiest one to solve. In addition to the technology, we also had to think about IT, scalability, maintenance and repair, government policy, and staffing.
One of the big issues with international projects, especially with developmental infrastructure projects, is that it’s easy to come up with a solution.
The real challenge is putting together the policy, oversight, and technological skills and maintenance capacity in place to properly hand over ownership of the project so that it can be managed locally and successfully.
That’s also why we find developmental projects extremely challenging, but also very rewarding.