environmental regulations

Meeting Environmental Standards Worldwide: “Toto, We’re Not in Kansas Anymore”

For project innovators under the government-funded Securing Water for Food (SWFF) program, environmental regulations sometimes are a splash of cold water reality. It’s like the line from Wizard of Oz, says USAID/LAB contractor Dr. P.V. Venkatesh, they realize as Dorothy said to her dog, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.” The reality is that many countries have less stringent environmental regulations than required by the SWFF program which was launched five years ago to confront a growing, global water crisis.

While local environmental standards are interesting to compare, they are not relevant when it comes to SWFF, and its commitment to avoid leaving a harmful footprint. One such project in southern India, located in the picturesque Nilgiris District, seemed to have a myriad of environmental issues when visited by the USAID environmental scientists.

Called WASTE Stitching, the program competed with some 500 companies to show it had an innovative idea to preserve precious water in the region while using the resource for irrigation and creating nutrient-rich compost. WASTE was one of 40 winning awards located around the globe, from India to Peru, from Bangladesh to Vietnam, and from South Africa to West African countries. In India, unpredictable rainfall can damage soil and drain groundwater reserves, making it difficult for farmers without access to irrigation to produce food. Lack of water infrastructure like sewer pipes can waste water sources in rural areas.

WASTE is run by a Dutch company. The program manager, Priska Prasetya, is located in the Netherlands while the project manager, a 40-year veteran of water issues, Rajkumar Sampath, is on site in India. The project called for the capture of gray water from households to flow into farm ponds for use in irrigation and also black fecal water which would be turned into compost to complete the cycle. In the region—noted for its tourism—household waste collectors would gather blackwater—wastewater containing feces, urine, and water from flush toilets—and then dump it into local rivers where people sometimes bathe.

“It’s been a win-win situation and good for business,” he added.

The WASTE team is working to solve these issues by building community systems that recycle the wastewater.

The plan was to dig dozens of ponds to collect and store the water. However,  WASTE had not fully answered the question about what they were going to do with all the soil extracted when excavating the ponds. “We found USAID in the field to be very particular about looking at every aspect of our project, “ said Sampath, the on-site project manager, who said he concurred in this approach, even though it cost some delay in WASTE’s plans. “The WASTE project had won the competition for funding, but now they had to prove that they could administer it in an environmentally safe way,” said USAID’s Dr. Venkatesh.

Because of the nature of the project—turning brown water and fecal matter into compost for fertilizer and using the water for irrigation—it raised several questions:

  • Where would the dirt from the excavated ponds be distributed? USAID scientist feared the possibility that the soil could be contaminated and spread to other farmlands.
  • How would WASTE ensure that the compost, generated from human waste, was not a human health risk? Had WASTE engaged in an effective community education effort and had sound testing procedures in place?
  • How would the household water flow into the holding ponds? Would it be through a pipe or, as had been planned initially, via an open ditch that could easily be clogged?

There was a sufficient number of questions for USAID to dispatch a team of environmental scientists to take a closer look at the WASTE program and offer its expert advice. It was important for the program to move forward given its promise of creating greater crop yields given the natural composting instead of utilizing chemical compounds. Ms. Prasetya, a business advisor to WASTE on sanitation matters, indicated there was a learning curve.

“We learned that having a cooperative relationship with the mostly female farmers is extremely helpful in gaining the trust of the community,” she said. “Since the compost is made from fecal matter, there was some reluctance to using it. However, some farmers, who had previous experience, convinced the others it was preferable over chemical fertilizer.

“We also learned that we needed to be more detailed with our reporting,” Ms. Prasetya added, “This is especially true when it comes to environmental issues. It’s an on-going process.” Sampath said the visit by the environmental team had been extremely helpful, along with their advice. “It showed us how USAID is looking at the project and its relationship to the environment.” The impact of the project has been significant, said Sampath. The farms using the environmental-friendly compost are seeing increases in both crop yields and sales. What’s more, he could add, waste collectors are no longer dumping their sludge —fecal matter mixed with urine and household water—into the ecosystem.

“It’s been a win-win situation and good for business,” he added.


USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $35 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.