[24 June 2018, The Star]
An innovative design by UTP engineers promises efficient and eco-friendly sewage treatment for communities in remote locations
MORE than half of Malaysia is connected to a centralised sewage treatment plant. The other half relies on septic tanks and flush systems. And then there are communities so remote that they've always depended on nature to deal with their sanitary wastewater treatment.
But economic and cultural shifts are upending our notions of what is rural. Our remotest of communities are getting their own schools (we all want this) which very likely means there are over 100 people in a single location. And, increasingly, urban folk are visiting exotic locations, like the deepest parts of our rainforest (we all want this too).
Fundamental human changes like these are loud beeps on the wastewater radar for environmental engineers like Shamsul Rahman Mohamed Kutty of Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS' Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering. "Both scenarios will need wastewater management," says Shamsul, "but such locations are so far interior that it's unlikely they will be linked to any centralised system."
Shamsul's surveys of human life in remote locations in the country inspired the design of a standalone sewage treatment facility specifically to serve a small community in an environmentally friendly way. "It will be customised for the location and it must never disrupt the lifestyle of the local people."
With the help of a government grant, Shamsul's team began work in 2013. Now they have a patent pending for the Integrated Suspended Growth BioReactor (i-SGBR) and are exploring collaborations for a pilot project.
The i-SGBR is integrated which means all stages of sewage treatment take place in one spot. Its compact design keeps the footprint small. For example, a reactor to serve a population of 500 would need a 4.5m diameter concrete tank to house all its pumps and gadgetry. Such an installation is expected to cost about RM200,000 to RM300,000.
A conventional centralised sewage treatment plant, which serves gigantic populations, has separate facilities for several stages – separation of oil, grit and debris, sedimentation, biological degradation and final rounds to refine the effluent that eventually goes out into the environment. Typically, it would need a few hectares of land and run into millions of ringgit.
Few reliable figures exist on how much wastewater in the world is actually collected in sewers and treated. A global estimate by UNDP and UN-Habitat is that 90% of all wastewater generated is released into the environment untreated. In some developing countries, the bulk of domestic and industrial wastewater is discharged after primary treatment only.
Shamsul says the i-SGBR will never reverse the universal move towards centralised wastewater treatment which municipalities globally consider to be the most cost-effective and hygienic way of dealing with sewage from densely populated urban and suburban areas.
"It will have to be under the supervision of a public authority," says Shamsul. "Its day to day operations can be done by a trained local person."
The i-SGBR treats wastewater as soon as it receives it, keeping relevant processes aerobic. One of its signature features is a sludge digestion system which converts the final residue into a safe material to be released into the environment. Its potential as a fertiliser for localised use is being studied. Separately, Shamsul's team is also studying ways to handle waste that has been stored in tanks in stranded locations, like on boats with no access to any kind of treatment.
"We believe our system will work well on oil rigs, small islands and at isolated highway stops," says Shamsul. "It will encourage the development of schools and other facilities in isolated locations anywhere in the world."
The i-SGBR is expected to bring welcome change to eco-tourism and rural tourism, now a bona fide part of nearly every country's GDP. Governments are driving such initiatives to create jobs and businesses for people displaced by farm mechanisation and communities that would have otherwise remained undeveloped. Places once considered impractical for tourists will now seem entirely sustainable.
Shamsul thinks the i-SGBR's use in industry will be a game-changer. "Especially in small factories whose process wastewater contains organic biological waste but not heavy metals. For example, food processing."
Typically, large factories have treatment plants on site but small factories rarely do. Many small manufacturers don't get approvals because they have a waste management problem. "This will result in a paradigm shift," says Shamsul.
"This means small factories can treat wastewater at source and then release it. For decades, we have been stuck on cleaning rivers after the damage has been done."
HIS students call him Dr Shark, a contraction of his full name. Now, that's how he signs off. By day, Professor Dr Shamsul Rahman Mohamed Kutty is an environmental engineer who studies solutions for wastewater issues. After work, he's on stage with the Tronoh Theatre Shop, a dramatic arts group he founded with colleagues at Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS.
"I believe that theatre really develops confidence and public speaking skills in young people," says Dr Shark. "This is extremely important when they go overseas to work. Our world is challenged by immense cultural and technological shifts and we need a new generation who can solve problems imaginatively. I believe theatre can help with that."
The Tronoh Theatre Shop, formed in 2003, has since won numerous awards for its performances and original drama scripts at theatre festivals in Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia and Thailand. Recently it bagged the best play in Festival Theatre Kuala Lumpur in 2018 and is aiming for the spot in Festival Theatre Malaysia to be held in October 2018.
The group is named after Tronoh, once a huge tin mining centre near the UTP campus, best remembered for its antiquated shophouses.
Tronoh Theatre Shop's members include students, staff and faculty. Some former student members, now in the workforce, went on to form their own theatre groups, among them Qum Actors and Laman Artisan. "I'm so proud to be part of the audience!"
The best feedback, says Dr Shark, has been from recruiters who said they chose job applicants for their experience with the Tronoh Theatre Shop. "All the candidates were equal at the application stage but the one with theatre experience had a distinct edge of great market value."