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Decentralised sanitation to fill the gap in urban wastewater treatment within the eThekwini Municipality: a focus on tertiary treatment in vertical down-flow constructed wetlands.

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South Africa’s bulk sanitation infrastructure is failing, and there is an urgent need to look at other appropriate sanitation solutions. Moreover, there is no data on the proportion of population with access to safely managed sanitation services, an indicator for the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6.2.1a. In a safely managed sanitation service, the user is provided with an improved facility, not shared with other households, and the excreta is safely disposed in situ or transported and treated off-site. In the city of eThekwini, informal settlements spring up faster than services can be delivered, severely impacting on public health, the environment, and the social well-being of these communities. The eThekwini Municipality sees the benefits of decentralised sanitation solutions for in situ informal settlement housing upgrades, but the selected system needs to produce fully compliant effluent with the Department of Water and Sanitation’s (DWS) Revised General Authorisation (GA) limits for safe discharge to a water resource. Since 2010, a modular-designed demonstration-scale decentralised wastewater treatment system (DEWATS) for raw domestic wastewater from 84 households has been in operation in eThekwini. The DEWATS operates with no electricity or chemicals for treatment, but was designed according to European best practice, and not according to the community served (such as influent characterisation and hydraulic loading). This study evaluated the applicability of vertical downflow constructed wetlands (VFCWs) as the tertiary treatment module in DEWATS in four design configurations, to determine an appropriate design that can be applied for the formal housing upgrades where safe discharge of the final effluent is required. These designs, all receiving anaerobically treated domestic wastewater from the demonstration-scale DEWATS and operating in the field, were: 1. A single-stage demonstration-scale VFCW (design 1) compared to its hybrid configuration with a horizontal flow CW (HFCW) (design 2). 2. VFCWs with extended filter depths (1 m) consisting of 2-3 mm coarse sand media (at pilot-scale) (design 3). 3. Two-stage VFCWs (at pilot-scale, operating under field conditions) (design 4): a. First stage: 0.5 m filter depth consisting of 2-3 mm coarse sand media. b. Second stage: 0.6 m filter depth with 0.5-2 mm fine to coarse sand media. Neither design was able to produce fully compliant effluent for safe discharge to a water resource. Depth had no impact on the treatment efficiency of the pilot-scale single-stage VFCWs; although the design with a two-stage VFCW, adapted from the Austrian design, did achieve higher total nitrogen removal compared to single-stage VFCWs with/without extended filter depths. Overall, design 2 with the demonstration-scale hybrid CW design (VFCWHFCW) produced the highest quality effluent. However, nitrate-N removal was limited in the HFCW due to low residence times, mixed aggregate media, high dissolved oxygen (DO) concentrations and lack of available carbon as an energy source for denitrification. A plantbased carbon source from dried plant material of the invasive Giant reed, Arundo donax L., was used to augment the carbon availability for denitrifying bacteria within the HFCW. However, it is surmised that the DO concentration above 0.5 mg L-1 limited NO3-N removal. It is recommended that the DEWATS design with the hybrid CW system be redesigned according to the raw wastewater characterisation and media gradation within both CWs to ensure sufficient residence times, natural aeration in the VFCW, limited diffusion of oxygen into the HFCW, and increased availability of biodegradable chemical oxygen demand carbon for denitrification. Moreover, if the upgraded households are installed with urine diversion flushing toilets, then the nutrient load to the DEWATS will be reduced, potentially resulting in fully compliant effluent. Consequently, DEWATS will then be considered a safely managed sanitation service, allowing South Africa to track their progress against SDG 6.2.1a.


Doctoral Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.