Risk assessment to groundwater of pit latrine rural sanitation policy in developing country settings

Jan O. Back, Michael O. Rivett, Laura B. Hinz, Nyree Mackay, Gift J. Wanangwa, Owen L. Phiri, Chrispine Emmanuel Songola, Mavuto A.S. Thomas, Steve Kumwenda, Muthi Nhlema, Alexandra V.M. Miller, Robert M. Kalin

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27 Citations (Scopus)
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Parallel global rise in pit-latrine sanitation and groundwater-supply provision is of concern due to the frequent spatial proximity of these activities. Study of such an area in Malawi has allowed understanding of risks posed to groundwater from the recent implementation of a typical developing-country pit-latrine sanitation policy to be gained. This has assisted the development of a risk-assessment framework approach pragmatic to regulatory-practitioner management of this issue. The framework involves water-supply and pit-latrine mapping, monitoring of key groundwater contamination indicators and surveys of possible environmental site-condition factors and culminates in an integrated statistical evaluation of these datasets to identify the significant factors controlling risks posed. Our approach usefully establishes groundwater-quality baseline conditions of a potentially emergent issue for the study area. Such baselines are foundational to future trend discernment and contaminant natural attenuation verification critical to policies globally. Attribution of borehole contamination to pit-latrine loading should involve, as illustrated, the use of the range of contamination (chemical, microbiological) tracers available recognising none are ideal and several radial and capture-zone metrics that together may provide a weight of evidence. Elevated, albeit low-concentration, nitrate correlated with some radial metrics and was tentatively suggestive of emerging latrine influences. Longer term monitoring is, however, necessary to verify that the commonly observed latrine-borehole separation distances (29–58 m), alongside statutory guidelines, do not constitute significant risk. Borehole contamination was limited and correlation with various environmental-site condition factors also limited. This was potentially ascribed to effectiveness of attenuation to date, monitoring of an emergent problem yet to manifest, or else contamination from other sources. High borehole usage and protective wall absence correlated with observed microbiological contamination incidence, but could relate to increased human/animal activity close to these poorly protected boreholes. Additional to factors assessed, a groundwater-vulnerability factor is recommended that critically relies upon improved proactive securing of underpinning data during borehole/latrine installations. On-going concerns are wide ranging, including poorly constrained pit-latrine input, difficulties in assessing in-situ plume natural attenuation and possible disposal of used motor oils to latrines.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)592-610
Number of pages19
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date26 Sep 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2018


  • pit latrine
  • Malawi
  • risk
  • groundwater quality
  • sanitation
  • Millennium development goals


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