By: Jesselito V. Baring
From the Implementing Rules and Regulation of RA 9275 known as the Clean Water Act of 2004, Section 8 states the following;
” SEC. 8. Domestic Sewage Collection, Treatment and Disposal – Within five (5) years following the implementation of this Act, the agency vested to provide water supply and sewerage facilities and /or concessionaires in Metro Manila and other highly urbanized cities (HUC) is defined in Republic Act No. 7160, in coordination with LGUs, shall be required to connect the existing sewage line found in all subdivisions, condominiums, commercial centers, hotels, sports and recreational facilities, hospitals, market places, public buildings, industrial complex and other similar establishments including households to available sewerage system: Provided, That the said connection shall be subject to sewerage services charge fees in accordance with existing laws, rules and regulations unless the sources had already utilized their own sewerage systems: Provided, further, That all sources of sewage and septage shall comply with the requirement herein.”
It is quite clear from this provision that the five-year grace period for the water district to provide the sewerage connection have already lapsed. Compliance at this point is therefore urgent and necessary. In Metro Manila, MWSS and its two (2) water service providers have been fined PHP 29.4 million for their failure to comply with the provisions of the Clean Water Act.
Today, cleaning up the current sewerage problem in the Metropolitan appears to us to be an impossible task. Except for some concrete environmental initiatives undertaken by some e.g. Atty. Oposa’s lawsuit against the government for the worsening pollution of Manila Bay, we can only submit ourselves to the utter helplessness of the situation. We have learned to live our lives with untreated sewage in our midst. All people from different walks of life including the affluent who may be absorbed in the game of golf are greeted by the continuous onrush of untreated wastewater flowing like river across the serene course.
Besides the significant scenic spots, a visit into the city brings us in full view of the black filthy water bodies or overflowing drainage line with the most disgusting odor and color. In the process of its development as a fully built-up metropolis, the city today has overlooked one of the most fundamental yet important aspects of its existence namely, addressing its own sewerage problem. Unattended for years, the problem has grown like a cancer cell unrestricted and unrestrained while damaging everything that is blocking its way. Today there is an observed absence of dedicated sewerage conveyance while every developmental activity has taken its own course despite the observed neglect. Depending on the social consciousness of the owners, designers and consultant of some new projects, some business proponents have put up dedicated treatment facilities. However it is generally observed that the lowly septic tank installations are the typical order of the day. These are either contrary to the ideal solutions or simply short of expectations.
Due to an absence of a dedicated sewage line, the main drainage lines have become the recipient of all wastewater discharges. Wastewater overflows from the septic tank and those that are directly discharged constitute the combined alarming sewage volume. Direct discharges are wastewater coming from kitchens and those coming from laundries. These are the kind that carries a lot of Fats, Oil and Grease (FOG). It is to be noted that wastewater coming from the toilets are allowed to pass through the septic tanks. These are only some of the unpleasant litany of wastewater discharges one can find in a typical urban location.
Despite the implementation of the Clean Water Act, very little have been done to address this situation. Untreated sewage flow continues to be damped into the water bodies with no concrete solution in sight. Solution comes in trickle and most of them are variants of the typical “band-aid” solution. People have a visible appreciation of the problem everyday but many have failed to understand its nature and internalize it. Worst still, many failed to appreciate the root cause. This dilemma is characteristic of the typical stage of denial.
One major issue associated in the treatment of sewage is the usually prohibitive cost of putting up a treatment facility. Current figures in the establishment of a Sewage Treatment Plant are pegged at about 100 Million Pesos per 1000 cubic meter of sewage. This excludes the conveyance of the wastewater which will definitely add more cost. Considering the extremely high cost involved, the lack of willingness to shoulder the expenses is evident from among the clients and stakeholders. The need to bring down this cost to manageable levels is the next big logical solution to entice potential clients to sit down at the drawing table and make a wise and timely environmental investment. An initiative like this proposes a balance between practicability and the urgent need of cleaning up our waterways.
In the light of the preceding considerations, this paper proposes practical solutions to bring down the cost of an STP installation without sacrificing the quality of treated wastewater. The current cost of about 20 Million Pesos for a treatment plant with a 1000 cubic meter capacity with installed decentralized treatment facility provisions is a staggering amount that will easily drive away well meaning stakeholders. This current data easily provokes hard reactions from the industry sector who are already confronted with many production and operation issues. It is within this context that this paper is written so that people will know that affordable wastewater treatment is now within reach.
The search for low cost and alternative technology has been done for several years now. It appears as a new field of interest where innovation to current technologies has to be done. Constructed wetlands and Anaerobic Baffled Reactors had been the subject of past investigations and are pilot-tested in some areas. Unknown to many, the Philippines is host to numerous efforts and initiatives at curbing the huge need to treat wastewater. One of these efforts is the development of the Filipino version of the Rotating Biological Contactor (RBC): the Rotating Biological Contactor -Packed Media Technology (RBC-PMT). Since 1998 this home-grown technology has outsmarted its foreign counterparts in terms of performance and efficiency and had been reaping favorable reviews both from the technical experts and the uninitiated.
To better appreciate the whole problem it is most appropriate that the fundamental interacting factors are presented here. These include the septic tanks, septage management, sewage flow and the sewage treatment. The dynamics of relationship inherent in each of these is essential towards a greater handle of the situation today. At the latter part of this presentation, an analysis of the merits and significance of the treatment systems is also given to further enrich the arguments raised. This presentation also sought to consider the traditional and current points of contention in the industry as well the place of regulatory standards to put the whole context in place.
The traditional design one can find in households and establishments today makes use of septic tanks designed for the primary treatment of wastewater. It is part of a conventional sanitary design where toilet wastewater is expected to end up in septic tanks. Other sources of wastewater from the household are those that flow from kitchen sinks. In this instance the kitchen is directly tapped into the drainage system whenever it is available. In its absence, wastewater is allowed to drain into pits to create a cesspool. Kitchen wastewater is normally connected to grease traps onwards to a drainage system. Usually it is not connected to a septic tank as it would create a bigger problem.
The first chamber of the septic tank is called the digestive chamber while the second chamber is called the leaching chamber. In the past, leaching chambers are designed so that wastewater will have to seep to the ground through sand and pebble matting serving as filter media. At a certain period, pebble matting or filter will be clogged up with biomass. It will eventually cause the overflow of the septic tank. If it is not connected to sewer lines, it will just create a cesspool until it sips into the nearest canal and traverse through several houses in a community.
Present day septic tanks are constructed with a sealed bottom and are expected to overflow everyday into street drainage. The current understanding that septic tanks overflow due to the absence of desludging is a wrong perception. Septic tanks are simply designed to overflow. Clogged septic tanks are not caused by settling sludge but rather on floating scam buoyed up by a gradually solidifying FOG.
Septage disposal is an old and recurring problem. It is dumped in places where nobody’s watching. This proposal contends that the problem is not primarily about excavating and transporting but rests rather on the absence of available facilities capable of treating wastewater at the most affordable cost. Attempts have been made in the past and it failed miserably. Nobody has been able to treat it satisfactorily. Regular customers of these septic excavators are the generators of the FOG. Grease traps are never a factor in its collection. It will have to get through into bigger and cooler tanks most particularly the septic tank to be separated. It will float and solidify on septic tanks which will eventually clog up drain pipes. This requires frequent cleaning.
Septic tank excavation businesses have been considered as necessary evil and it has been raised as a disposal problem for a long time. However, when one tries to investigate its root causes, one will find out that the excavated materials come from establishments or facilities that are heavily throwing fats, oil and grease. Septic tanks get filled up when the fats, oil and grease solidify hard while afloat on the septic tank. This is the major cause of clogged up toilet bowls.
We have to bear in mind that septic tanks always overflow whether it is desludged or not. This proponent does not quite agree with the assumption that desludging of the septic tank particularly those coming from the household iis a solution to the wastewater problem. Instead of solving it addss a new problem to the current difficulty. The current septage problems are of commercial or industrial origin and nature. IIf ever, the households only hold a minimal contributionion to this issue.
The best strategy is to find the right treatment for the hauled septage by existing haulers and excavators. We don’t need to compete with them or propose to eliminate their work. Their work is a significant contribution in hastening the collection process. Instead we propose to comcomplement their work by providing good septage treatment facility so that their operation can be legitimized and made more legally acceptable.
The challenge posed by excavating wastewater volumes makes this proponent wonder if government or the water district companies can provide a strategic site where a centralized treatment can be done. In this regard, a practical technology by a private company can now be supplied and can be made into a profitable business venture. When the area for a centralized treatment is provided by either government or water districts, funding for the installation of the facilities will not be required to start the venture.
With the presence of so many septic tanks and direct discharges into the drainage lines, we are faced with a complex type of wastewater that contains a variety of undesirable components. Wastewater that satisfies this description is called combined sewage. When it has undergone anaerobic decomposition from septic tanks, it is carrying a lot of filamentous bacteria which is not desirable for specific conventional treatment systems. It either carries with it some non–biodegradable materials or possesses inherent toxic chemicals that will hinder the growth of helpful bacteria.
Using conventional wastewater treatment system on this type of wastewater is not quite feasible. The characteristics present in this wastewater do not conform to the requirements needed by conventional treatment system for it to be effective. For example the viability of the conventional aeration system can be considered effective only if the wastewater passed a certain set of criteria. Outside of those criteria, it cannot work. Hence, it will be unwise to consider treating combined sewage with the conventional approach without testing the applicability of the technology considered. One has to bear in mind that there is no single technology that can effectively treat all kinds of waste. As the wastewater becomes complex, more technologies have to be combined in order to realize a practical set-up for a specific wastewater. It may have to undergo pilot testing to make sure of the applicability using actual wastewater as the subject.
It will be a waste of money to set-up major infrastructures that will eventually become useless in treating combined sewage. Odor generation, a common issue in wastewater treatment is considered a big factor in determining technology usefulness. Before implementing a major project, there should be a careful internal study using the combined sewage as the subject. Experience suggests that a combined sewage has plenty of surprises in store for the designer of the project. Admittedly, only a few local experts in wastewater and sewerage treatment can be considered competent in specific treatment issues. Observation has it that even a handful of foreign experts lack familiarity and depth in understanding the characteristics of our local wastewater. Through the years this proponent has gained an upper hand in understanding the complex conditions and characteristics inherent in the local wastewater conditions. This first-hand experience has become a constant learning experience for us and enabled us to implement the most practical solution to our own problem.
As our built-up areas rise up, population increases. Although subdivision and private development design have provisions for internal road networks and drainage systems, and a well-defined external connection, observations note about the lack of preparations to these infrastructure. There are no preparations with regard to the basic infrastructure in the pre-design stage in road and drainage construction. The building of a road is done contingently as the need arise together with the drainage system. Drainage pipes and canal are often acted upon when the flooding problem gets persistent. Wastewater is usually allowed to flow wherever it wants to be and one can only hope that it will end up in the drainage canal or culverts. This is the actual situation of the environmental condition duplicated in most settlements. In this set-up, a centralized treatment facility is not an option. Identifying a clustered area, where a common site can be accessible, appears to be the more practical option.
Block-by-block sewage flow can be identified and practical approaches can be designed within those specific areas. Identification of the wastewater characteristics in specific clustered communities should guide the designers towards an appropriate treatment method to be used. In this context, a decentralized wastewater treatment facility is the most practical solution to the clustered area approach. Community-based initiatives can also be used through the formation of a cooperative for its operation. A mechanism for this community-based approached has already been tested in Liloan, Cebu. We can learn from this experience and fit the system into the community where it will be used.
This community-based approached should be provided with sustaining mechanisms such as an organization or a cooperative to turn the venture into a money making project. An added feature of the project is the establishment of communal toilets and bath to make it sustainable.
Commercial and industrial establishments are mandated to install individual wastewater treatment facility. This is articulated in the Environment Compliance Certificate (ECC) issued for its operation. Despite the clear ECC stipulation for the treatment of wastewater, there still remains a great need for compliance for the establishment of a wastewater treatment facility. Untreated wastewater or partially treated wastewater has been continuously discharged into sewer lines and water bodies.
Although the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) conduct some monitoring on establishments, continued violation of these requirements have prevailed due to high capital cost. This constitutes as the first reason for the violation to the ECC provisions. Aside from the capital cost, the effectiveness of treatment has been another nagging issue. Unfortunately high capital cost does not readily mean perfect and effective treatment. More often, there are more unnamed failures in wastewater treatment. Very often, the root cause of these failures involves compatibility issues relating to wastewater characteristics in relation to the treatment technology being applied.
The third reason for the failure or the resistance towards operating an STP is the complexity of its operation. Conventional STP’s are to be operated like a manufacturing plant with round the clock operator. Complex STP operations discouraged establishments from pursuing its operation due to high cost of operation notwithstanding the complexity of maintaining it.
To effectively encourage ECC compliance by establishments, an improvement to the current situation should be offered to the companies. This could be done by lowering the cost, easing operation and easing maintenance protocols.
“Those whose job is to select and design appropriate systems for the collection and treatment of sewage … must bear in mind that European and North American practices do not represent the zenith of scientific achievement, nor are they the product of a logical and rational process. Rather, [they] are the product of history, a history that started about 100 years ago when little was known about the fundamental physics and chemistry of the subject and when practically no applicable microbiology had been discovered…. These practices are not especially clever, nor logical, nor completely effective–and it is not necessarily what would be done today if these same countries had the chance to start again.”
This quote from the World Bank publication Sanitation and Disease challenges the “conventional wisdom” that centralized wastewater systems are the obviously superior method of management emphasizing that they are really just derived from over 100 years of sanitary engineering tradition. In the beginning, due to a growing awareness of disease risks caused by squalor in large cities, the focus was on piping wastes away from the population. Only later, as it was seen how the discharge of raw wastes had transformed rivers into foul open sewers, was treatment at the end of the pipe integrated into the management system. The result of this tradition is a “pipe it away and dump it” syndrome. This is currently the paradigm in most wastewater management systems which are generally accepted by all levels of the institutional infrastructure that address this function–engineers, operators, regulators, administrators, etc.
Though the criticism quoted above is offered in the context of disease control, it can be argued that these thoughts apply equally well in many fiscal, societal and environmental aspects of wastewater management. Over the years, many have argued that a “sewerless society” would be the means of minimizing the problems, but most of these arguments proposed the use of composting toilets and other non-standard plumbing methods which would enforce lifestyle changes that most people who grew up with “modern plumbing” would not readily accept. To be broadly applicable, decentralized management methods must be as “transparent” as practical to the user, allowing them to — for a fee — flush it and forget it, just as they are able to do when served by “the sewer”.
The decentralized concept of wastewater management aims to provide a framework for producing “alternative” systems which meet this need–systems which are also more fiscally reasonable, more socially responsible, and more environmentally benign than conventional practice. Stated most simply, the decentralized concept holds that wastewater should be treated as close to where it is generated as practical. While on-site systems–especially “alternative” systems which can cope with site limitations–may indeed be components of an area-wide decentralized concept system, they are not acceptable solutions in many situations.
The decentralized concept goes beyond merely managing individual user systems, filling in the “gap” between on-lot systems and the conventional, centralized system. In general, as explained below, it is suggested that septic tanks indeed be used to intercept the flow from each generator at the wastewater source, but effluent from these tanks may be routed to further treatment processes, and these may be deployed at various levels of flow aggregation. Many considerations would determine how close to the source of generation it is practical to address treatment and disposal. One very important factor is if and how the wastewater could be reused in a beneficial manner, challenging the very concepts of “waste” water and “disposal”
It is important to understand however that the entire system, no matter how the hardware is arranged, should be managed by an authority with powers appropriate to the needs of the technologies employed. Conventional sewers, lift stations and treatment plants would not continue to perform their intended functions for very long if operations and maintenance were left solely to the discretion of the individual users. A decentralized hardware system is no different in this regard.
Decentralizing the hardware system implies there may be many small treatment centers. To minimize the operations and maintenance liabilities imposed by this strategy requires judicious choice of technologies which are appropriate to the volume of flow, the nature of the development served, the nature of the reuse opportunities, limitations on disposal options, etc. This is perhaps the hardest point for those who have invested in the prevailing paradigm to accept, as there is mistrust — rooted in unfamiliarity — of all but the “mainstream” technologies which are typically employed in conventional, centralized systems.
As noted, it is most expeditious to use as the first stage of the treatment system a septic tank located very close to the source of wastewater generation. This offers several advantages:
Given the use of appropriate technologies, the decentralized management concept offers several environmental, fiscal and societal benefits relative to conventional practice. The following factors indicate that decentralized systems would be more environmentally benign:
A decentralized concept system would be less costly than conventional practice for the following reasons:
Societal advantages may also accrue from the use of decentralized concept systems. These include the following:
Finally, it should be noted that the decentralized concept will not be the answer to all wastewater management problems. Just as the “one size fits all” mentality of those who view conventional, centralized systems as the only reasonable approach is inappropriate, so too will there be cases where decentralized management does not make the best sense. Still, the many potential benefits of this alternative strategy indicate that it is a method which deserves much greater attention, especially in smaller communities and the developing urban fringe.
It is clear that most of the barriers to broader implementation of the decentralized concept are institutional rather than technical. These matters command the attention of policy-makers, regulators, operating authorities, engineers, developers and interested members of the general public. Given the water resource challenges encountered in many parts of the world, it is time to engage in a rational analysis of all possible management strategies, not merely those accepted as “conventional wisdom”
Seemingly, the strong desire to have clean water remains on paper and lacks a clear commitment. There is almost no strong public pressure for the compliance of the new law. The recent Oposa case on Manila Bay is an exception to this social weakness. Mandated institutions have notably been deficient in performing its tasks. The public is not well informed on this issue or maybe clueless as to the things that can be rightfully done.
For highly urbanized cities (HUC), the clean water act mandates the water district to spearhead the establishment of a centralized wastewater treatment facility. The collection of fees in water companies has been crucial in achieving compliance to this mandate. But this would not be easy as the fees that are to be collected from the consumers is far too small to cover the cost of installing and operating the wastewater treatment facility. In this case, the water district would have to wait until it can resolve this issue and can make a way to recover the cost invested.
Strategies to Comply with the Clean Water Act
Despite the issue of cost, water district can comply with Clean Water Act without necessarily straining its financial status. An interesting option will be the transformation of a cost center e.g. in this case the water district, which induces operational expenses into a profit making center through the introduction of some innovative strategies. This can only be possible if the water district explore possibilities outside the conventional method and adopt new innovation with emphasis on low cost. Compliance with the Clean Water Act can be categorized into immediate or short term, medium term and long term implementations.
Strategy in the treatment of wastewater in the Philippines should be based on an understanding of the real situation i.e. lack of public awareness and lack of political will. We have to assume a sensitive attitude towards everything to get down to the roots of the problem. Practices that do not touch base on the real situation are deemed inutile. For instance, segregation practices have been marked as inferior as manifested in the failure of garbage segregation rules to date.
For the last five years since enactment of the Clean Water Act, very little have been done in terms of compliance. For the next five years, it is expected that public awareness will not show strong improvement. The law has not pressured compliance and willingness from among companies to pay for treatment. With this scenario, we may make use of the individual mandates of company through their ECC to comply the Clean Water Act. A joint effort can be done by the company and the water district in this regard. The right mechanism will have to be put in place to make this work.
The urgency generated by this situation can be used as a leverage to increase sewage volume treated in a shorter period of time. Many other establishments may find themselves in a compelling moment to treat wastewater. In this scenario, a dedicated STP can be provided to an interested establishment free of charge. The rental company can be paid through a negotiated water rate for those who would agree with a dedicated STP. In this way, the connected establishment can comply with government regulatory requirement while effectively treating a certain volume of sewage.
Many old and new establishments have not complied with the ECC stipulation. Effluent standards for water bodies have been recently upgraded and those STP that previously passed effluent standards may fail eventually with the new stringent requirements. In the absence of a centralized wastewater treatment, dedicated wastewater treatment should pass those standards so that it could comply with these ECC stipulations.
A noteworthy example is the current practice of a small company in Cebu which offered mobile or transportable STP for rent to its clients. This arrangement is unique and probably the only kind in the world. This concept has been successfully in operation in a few establishments that it has catered and it is now ready for full scale operation with other prospective partners who would like to try the arrangement.