By Morgan Brown

July 12, 2021

In the US, there has been recent media attention surrounding lack of access to safe drinking water in vulnerable communities. A water issue that has not received as much attention is inadequate wastewater treatment. The US Water Alliance report “Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States” highlights a few of these instances in case studies, one of which being the wastewater and sanitation challenges in Alabama’s Black Belt region. Many people living in this rural region are poor, Black families, who cannot afford to install new or maintain existing septic systems to properly dispose of wastewater. This exposure to untreated wastewater can lead to waterborne illnesses and other negative health effects in communities.
The US Water Alliance recently partnered with UNLEASH to help address this issue. UNLEASH is a nonprofit founded in 2016 with the aim of developing solutions to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and building capacity for young people from around the world. One way they do this is by hosting UNLEASH Hacks, which are localized hackathons designed to address sustainability challenges in specific contexts and locations.
Through a collaborative two-day event, passionate participants work with local stakeholders and community leaders to collectively solve problems and contribute to the SDGs. In 2021, UNLEASH will host 21 hacks in 18 countries that cover 14 SDGs. This most recent USA hack focused on developing sustainable, equitable solutions for wastewater sanitation issues in Alabama’s Black Belt region with emphasis on SDG 3, Good Health and Well Being, and SDG 6, Clean Water and Sanitation.
The Hack engaged with over 40 young professionals from around the country to come together in small teams, learn about this problem from experts and the local community, brainstorm solutions, and pitch their best ideas to a panel of judges. Some teams focused on funding and regulations while others focused on technology, but every team included community engagement and local buy-in as a crucial part of the solution.
The winning team’s idea consisted of communities working with local industries to collect wastewater and use the nutrients within to produce other valuable products such as fertilizer and hydroponic vegetables. The system would be run and owned by the community, creating jobs and additional economic opportunity for residents.
The next step is to work in partnership with the local experts who were involved in the hack to build out the concept and further engage with the community. Although the hack was a fun first step, there is a long way to go to determine the feasibility of this idea, and to ultimately address wastewater and sanitation challenges equitably and sustainably in the Alabama Black Belt region.