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The governance of wastewater and the culture of flushing July 16, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, food for thought, public policy issues, sustainability, urbanization, wastewater, water.
Tags: , ,

One of the things that has struck me a lot throughout the past five years that I have studied water policy is the absolute disconnect that exists between our understanding of the different elements of the hydrological cycle and their interconnectedness. The social sciences literature has examined in great detail issues of water scarcity, but water quality and wastewater treatment are, for the most part, absent from the discussion.

The Joy of the Mundane

Photo credit: The Joy of the Mundane

I know that I have always chosen difficult and non-explored questions for my own research, and in this regard, I have created some sort of a niche because very few people study the governance of wastewater. Amongst those very few Canadian scholars who have done work in wastewater and that I know of are Dr. Arn Keeling (whose PhD dissertation was an environmental history of wastewater in Vancouver) and Dr. Jaimie Benidickson (whose book, “The Culture of Flushing“, is a great environmental and social history of flushing in Canada, the United States and Great Britain).

My own work hasn’t dealt with Canadian wastewater, but I do have a fairly solid understanding of the way things work here. I am sure you’ll find it appalling that the city of Victoria, the capital of the province of British Columbia, does NOT have a wastewater treatment plant. The effluent comes straight into the ocean (with some preliminary screening).

Burnaby Lake Park

A recent post by Matt Collinge about water quality in False Creek reminded me of how little do people in Vancouver AND in Canada think about wastewater. This is something that is prevalent at the larger scale. Professor Dickinson indicates that this is part of “the culture of flushing”, or what I often call, the OOSOOM phenomenon (out of sight, out of mind).

One of my personal pet peeves is that both scholars and non-academics in Canada are SO focused on climate change issues that sometimes they forget other environmental problems that have NOT been solved, including solid waste management (Vancouver’s landfill is about to be entirely full) and wastewater management (we are nowhere near some of the developing countries’ technologies for wastewater treatment, hard to believe as that may be).

My research focus in the area of water policy (I’ve done research in other areas) has examined primarily the role of institutions and the types of rules found in wastewater governance, and the role of watershed councils in strengthening sanitation policy. I found, after that presentation, and having had discussions with other scholars, that I will have to pursue two separate agendas in the future: one on wastewater governance itself and one on watershed councils, and I am very excited about this.

I am curious to know if my readers do think about water scarcity more than they think about what happens once they flush the toilet. Or does even water come into their minds, with so much focus on climate change issues? What do you think?



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3. Mel - July 16, 2008

Very interesting post, Raul! When I was in junior high and high school, I went to local water treatment plants twice on field trips, so I think I know more about water treatment than the average person. It is very rarely discussed, though. But even though I have a knowledge base, I don’t think about it very often, to be honest.

4. Anya - July 16, 2008

I try to implement the “if it’s yellow let it mellow; if it’s brown flush it down” thing as often as I can, but as long as there is stigma about that sort of thing it’s hard to do, especially in public places.

I think you’re right to point out that everyone’s too focused on climate change to notice a lot of the other problems that are very salient. Case in point: everyone was grossed out about the False Creek story, but then it really went nowhere.

5. Karen - July 16, 2008

My exposure to this topic isn’t so much in Vancouver but in Hong Kong – I visited their Planning and Infrastructure Exhibit (that’s a blog post in progress :D) where they had a diorama and a detailed description of their wastewater treatment plant on Stonecutter’s Island, and the work that went into building out the pipeline, etc. Hong Kong is also a super-interesting case because the buildings there have a separate grey water management where ocean water is used for flushing, then it’s treated. Don’t know all that much about it but I thought you might appreciate the reading/link to see how it’s done somewhere else, both the water treatment itself and the education about it.

6. inaequitas - July 16, 2008

(I figure this might be only slightly on-topic, but I think it speaks about attitude)

In UBC, some of the newer buildings have waterless urinals. A combination of chemicals, technology and whatnot saves an estimate of 40000 gallons of water pe urinal, annualy. That sounds like a lot, and is good. Of course, once in a while something breaks – but a lot of people have complained that these urinals are bad because ‘they stink’ (mind you, I don’t think they’re worse than the classic ones) and they never flush, so they must be germ-heaven.

I had to ask these people how often they were camping in the washrooms, to let these issues become a problem, and if they understood the motivation behind the project (some had thought it was all about the University saving money). Luckily, UBC didn’t pull fresh water lines to the urinals, so they’re there to stay.

7. Jonathon Narvey - July 17, 2008

Great post, Raul. The other side of conserving water is ensuring we don’t contaminate it all with human crap. The pink algae levels off the west coast of BC are off the charts. And then there’s False Creek, where we’ve got the issue of boaters essentially dumping their waste straight into the water a few yards from where kayakers go by in the daylight… You’d think we would have had this issue nailed down by now.

8. Greg Andrews - July 17, 2008

When no one is around, I’ll stand at an angle to the urinal so the auto flush doesn’t go off.

9. Environmental groups mobilization and protests: More than meets the eye « Random Thoughts of a Student of the Environment - July 18, 2008

[…] deep way (that is, it must be scary enough to make people put words into action). As I mentioned in my previous post on the governance of wastewater, it irks me to know that other pressing problems, such as dwindling supplies of water and […]

10. Water footprint: A new tool to examine water scarcity and use « Random Thoughts of a Student of the Environment - August 24, 2008

[…] rather passionate about (and I’ve previously written about it, like my discussion of the culture of flushing and the concept of water governance). I love researching it and writing about it, particularly […]

11. Putting back the public in public policy « Random Thoughts of a Student of the Environment - September 3, 2008

[…] water policy in Canada and a deficient regional strategy in Metro Vancouver, particularly in the management of wastewater. * The lack of transparency in the development of Bill C-61. – The need to re-assess the whole […]

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