Elle Sweeney is a second year MA student at Johns Hopkins SAIS studying Conflict Management and International Development. She plans to pursue a career with the UN Refugee Agency working on sustainable solutions for migration challenges

There's nothing like the strong smell of fecal sludge to wake SAIS IDEV-ers up in the morning. 

Professor Tanvi Nagpal led her annual field trip to Washington DC's Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant as part of her course: "Improving Service Delivery in Developing Countries" this Fall semester. Blue Plains is one of the world's largest plants of its kind. On an average day, this treatment facility pipes in close to 300 million gallons of wastewater from five counties in the Washington D.C, Maryland, and Virginia area. According to the plant's expert guide, "That's enough poo-water to fill the Nationals Baseball Stadium!"

The field trip provides students with an up-close look into a highly improved sanitation system. As an industry leader, Blue Plains utilizes a complex three-tiered sterilization process, which includes physical treatment methods as well as chemical and biological ones. Not only does such an operation cleanse human excrement, it goes further, recycling useful products such as biosolids into organic fertilizers and extracting energy for electricity generation in what the plant calls its "Poop-to-Power" program. This year, Professor Nagpal and her students finished their tour with a fun exercise: guessing which of two glasses contained drinkable tap water and which contained treated wastewater. Only a couple of students guessed correctly, since the final product pumped out of Blue Plains is completely clear and odorless.

Each year, the Blue Plains field trip provides an opportunity for SAIS students to better understand what the developed world "gets right" in terms of sanitation service delivery. In countries like the United States, fecal waste is hygienically separated from human contact in accordance with improved sanitation standards. Smartly-designed, efficiently-managed, and well-funded policies and programs make sure that all excreta flushed is properly treated and safely disposed. Such is not the case in most developing countries. While the Blue Plains field trip exposes SAIS students to a service delivery success story, in doing so, it also highlights the failures of sanitation provision in poorer parts of the globe. According to the United Nations, approximately 4.5 billion people lack safely managed sanitation services. Unsafe hygiene practices, such as open defecation or the use of inadequate communal latrines, are widespread in the Global South, and they compound the effects on people’s health. In such environments, exposed fecal matter is transferred back into the food and water resources, enabling the spread of serious diseases such as cholera. Beyond the community, the lack of effective waste disposal or sewerage systems contaminates ecosystems and contributes to disease pandemics.

Over the course of the semester, Professor Nagpal's class reviews the main challenges to effective and reliable service delivery in the developing world, not just for sanitation, but also for access to drinking water, solid waste management (i.e. trash), and public transportation. Students discuss the role of the state in service provision, why some services are harder to provide (or some populations more difficult to serve), and the problems specific to each sector. In turn, the class combs through the policies and programs used to address these challenges and works to figure out to what extent these solutions have been successful and why, and what approaches may work in the future.

Through lessons learned in courses such as Professor Nagpal's, as well from experiences like the Blue Plains tour, students at SAIS have the chance to gain a better understanding of contemporary global challenges such as basic service provision. And, from there, begin thinking of innovations - for instance, clearer incentives, stronger financing mechanisms, and better integration - that could work to address these critical gaps going forward. So long as the stench doesn't scare us all off! 

PHOTO CREDIT: "Drain in Kalibari community" by Ashley Wheaton licensed under Flickr Creative Commons License CC BY 2.0