Lab | Log

Down the Drain in Two Cities

Newtown Creek Waste Treatment Facility, Brooklyn.

As Olatunbosun Obayomi gave his opening presentation at the Lab on Wednesday, he made it emphatically clear that here in New York, he’s a long way from home.

Olatunbosun is a microbiologist from Lagos, Nigeria, who specializes in the conversion of human waste to biofuel. In his presentation (watch it online next week) he detailed the fascinating and innovative work he has done in Lagos surrounding wastewater management, but also took time to compare Lagos’s wastewater management system to the system here in New York.

Looking at the problems in a developing versus a developed nation was a reminder of how oftentimes the most striking difference between the systems in which such problems exist is the formality with which they were developed.

“The major difference between systems in Lagos and systems in New York City is that systems in New York City are better organized. The structure for the systems is well planned. New York has evolved over a long period of time, so you have different city systems that are really working together efficiently,” Olatunbosun said when I snagged him after his presentation to talk about the challenges of looking for wastewater solutions in such wildly different contexts.

“When New York built its first waste treatment plant, it kept evolving and changing as time went on. All cities share the same problems, but the difference is that in New York City their problems have been controlled,” he said.

“They planned their problems.”

In Lagos, he said, systems were born informally. Wastewater collection, transportation, and treatment systems were never planned to work in concert with one another throughout the city.

“There were just systems that popped up when people found the opportunity. City systems in Lagos were developed based on survival instead of planning—by each individual person as opposed to a governing body,” Olatunbosun said.

When looking for solutions to the problems within these systems, he said, it is a matter of looking at different methods of adaptation.

“In Lagos there is more room for new types of infrastructure to be added. It’s still very fallow ground. There is still room to do complete planning,” he said.

“New York City, on the other hand, is well developed, with a lot of long-standing infrastructure, so it only makes sense to just think how the existing infrastructure can be tinkered with, rather than trying to change everything.”

One of the effects of this great difference is the visibility of the systems’ problems. Individuals in Lagos feel the nasty effects of their wastewater management problems personally: people get sick from the water they are drinking when their system is not functioning properly. As a result, there is an urgent personal investment in finding a solution.

In New York, the problems really arise when the system is overloaded, he said.

The New York wastewater treatment system combines storm water and sanitary waste together. That means that when heavy rains tear through the city, it causes wastewater to bypass the treatment system and be emptied raw into the ocean—an effect that, while extremely damaging to overall water quality, is not felt or even seen by New York citizens themselves immediately.

“In New York City that connection is lost. The way the system was designed, it separates the people from the importance of the wastewater, so people are not really conscious of why their wastewater needs to be treated differently,” said Olatunbosun.

He said the difference between systems in places like Lagos and New York will be one of the great challenges of his time at the Lab while he works to discuss and develop new ideas for New York that will also be applicable elsewhere.

“I’ve always had challenges right from the first time that I stepped into New York, when I stepped into this project, because local knowledge is required for local solutions. But with the help of the Lab visitors, it could all come together. As they learn about Lagos, I will learn about New York City, and together we will come to solutions,” he said.

“That’s what this project will be about.”

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Photo: used by permission under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) License from Victoria Belanger