Monday, November 30, 2020

Friday, September 28, 2018

So happy to see Sara Marks's paper on pathways to rural water infrastructure sustainability in press at last! The academic machine turns slowly--much slower than that of practice in this case, as the findings from this study have helped shape aspects of the WHO's forthcoming guidelines for small drinking water supplies. I also have a hunch that many phenomena of interest in the WASH field are best analyzed with the 'equifinality' lens Sara uses in this study as opposed to the 'average effects' lens that many of us employ. Nice job sharing these tools with the sector!

Check out the paper here.

Pathways to sustainability: A fuzzy-set qualitative comparative analysis of rural water supply programs. 2018. Sara Marks, Emily Kumpel, Jean Guo, Jamie Bartam, Jennifer Davis. Journal of Cleaner Production 205 (20): 789-798.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Family cloths...

Just heard about the 'family cloth' movement. Some folks seem to be getting quite worked up about it (both pro and con). I wonder how the cost/benefit analysis would be affected by considering, in addition to pathogen exposure and aesthetic experience:

  • credible water footprint estimates (the 37 gal/toilet paper roll everyone cites seems to have come originally from Lloyd Alter at, with no information on how the value was computed)
  • recent news about synthetic fabrics and micro pollutants (of course, family cloths could be made from natural fiber fabric, but seems like most aren't)
  • wastewater treatment costs (what share of sewage does TP comprise? also, if we dramatically reduced TP use would we also stop putting other stuff down the toilet, such as 'flushable' wet wipes and 'biodegradable' tampons? if so, i know an operator at the Palo Alto plant who would be *thrilled* about that...)

What other considerations are missing here?

Anyone out there who's joined the family cloth experiment and is willing to share your experience?

Monday, February 5, 2018

Engaging with media

I was recently interviewed about's SuperBowl ad for an NPR article (see link below). The journalist's ex-ante slant on the piece seemed to be that 'this must be too good to be true' and, as I think a savvy reader can glean, was hoping to get water 'experts' to tear down's WaterCredit program.
Notwithstanding Matt Damon's surprising and offensive comments on the #MeToo/Time's Up movement, I remain grateful to him and other influential individuals for getting more people interested in global water issues. I'm also happy that journalists from high profile, reputable media outlets are raising awareness further with their efforts. But the amount of effort, time, and emotional energy required to ensure that an accurate, semi-nuanced message is conveyed makes the prospect of participating in these public discussions more and more daunting. Perhaps I'm just not good at it, or am over-thinking it, or...?

Fact-Checking Matt Damon's Clean Water Promise In A Super Bowl Ad

Thursday, January 25, 2018

New paper on costs and benefits of urban sanitation options

Congratulations to Jeanette Laramee, who broadens the debate on urban sanitation planning in sub-Saharan Africa by considering treatment performance, financial costs, and greenhouse gas emissions in her analysis.

--> J. Laramee, S. Tilmans, and J. Davis. 2018. Costs and benefits of biogas recovery from communal anaerobic digesters treating domestic wastewater: Evidence from peri-urban Zambia. Journal of Environmental Management 210: 25-35.  -->
Abstract:Communal anaerobic digesters (ADs) have been promoted as a waste-to-energy strategy that can provide sanitation and clean energy co-benefits. However, little empirical evidence is available regarding the performance of such systems in field conditions. This study assesses the wastewater treatment efficiency, energy production, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and financial costs and benefits of communal ADs used for domestic wastewater treatment in Zambia. Primary data on the technical performance of 15 ADs were collected over a 6-month period and in-person interviews were conducted with heads of 120 households. Findings from this study suggest that ADs offer comparable wastewater treatment efficiencies and greater GHG emission reduction benefits relative to conventional septic tanks (STs), with the greatest benefits in settings with reliable access to water, use of low efficiency solid fuels and with sufficient demand for biogas in proximity to supply. However, absent a mechanism to monetize additional benefits from biogas recovery, ADs in this context will not be a financially attractive investment relative to STs. Our financial analysis suggests that, under the conditions in this study, a carbon price of US$9 to $28 per tCO2e is necessary for positive investment in ADs relative to STs. Findings from this study contribute empirical evidence on ADs as a sanitation and clean energy strategy, identify conditions under which the greatest benefits are likely to accrue and inform international climate efforts on the carbon price required to attract investment in emissions reduction projects such as ADs.

Postdoctoral opportunity

Postdoctoral Associate position
Infrastructure financing in low- and middle-income countries

The Stanford Program on Water, Health & Development seeks a motivated, independent researcher to contribute to the design and execution of applied research on the sources, models, and impacts of funding and financing for infrastructure in low- and middle-income countries. The position will be based at Stanford University, and will be supervised by Prof. Jenna Davis (Director, Stanford Program on Water, Health & Development) and Dr. Ashby Monk (Executive Director of Stanford's Global Projects Center).

The Program on Water, Health & Development was created in 2011 to facilitate interdisciplinary collaborations among Stanford researchers working on these issues in low- and middle-income countries. Our goals are to strengthen the scientific basis for decision-making in the water and sanitation sector; enhance capacity within developing countries for sustainable water supply and wastewater management; provide unique training and learning opportunities for faculty and students at Stanford and partner institutions; and improve the health and well-being of households in some of the world’s poorest countries. The Global Projects Center is an interdisciplinary research center that advances understanding of the financing, development, and governance of critical infrastructure worldwide.

The Postdoctoral Associate will be responsible for co-designing and leading applied research related to water and energy infrastructure financing in low- and middle-income countries, with particular emphasis on sub-Saharan Africa. Early-stage research objectives include assessing risk profiles, information asymmetries, and business processes that underlie public, private, and philanthropic financing decisions, and how particular financing strategies shape outcomes for both institutional development and service delivery. The results of this work will form the basis for designing and testing innovative financing mechanisms, in partnership with our network of funding and practitioner organizations.

The initial appointment has a duration of 12 months, with the potential for extension contingent on performance. The Postdoctoral Associate will also have the opportunity to pursue additional partnerships and research ideas through the Program on Water, Health & Development, Global Projects Center, and their partners.

Required qualifications:

PhD in finance, economics, public policy, political science, planning or a related field. Relevant research and/or professional experience in low- and middle-income countries. Interest in applied research that informs decision-making and program design. Demonstrated excellence in written and oral communication skills. Ability to synthesize research findings for diverse audiences, including non-academic audiences.

Preferred qualifications:

Experience with designing and conducting case-based research, including comparative case analysis. Familiarity/experience with quasi-experimental research designs. Experience with/interest in the design and/or governance of financial organizations, particularly those invested in low- and middle-income countries.

On-the-ground experience in developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as some background in water sector investment, are helpful but not required.

To apply:

Please submit the following materials in a single zip file to Please include WHD POSTDOC in the subject of your message.

    - A CV of no more than 5 pages

    - 1000-word summary of your relevant research experience and interest in the position

    - A sample of published research

    - Optional: A sample of writing authored specifically for non-academic audiences

Stanford University is committed to equal opportunity in employment, and we are especially eager to identify qualified minority and women applicants. More information on the Program on Water, Health & Development can be found at More information on the Global Projects Center can be found at

Saturday, November 11, 2017

World Toilet Day: Not just butts on toilets

Raising awareness about the plight of the 2.4 billion people without a toilet is certainly a worthy cause. Lack of access to sanitation facilities is an affront to human dignity. It also creates a major public health risk of diarrheal diseases that kill about 1,300 children a day in the developing world.

The good news is the death rate from diarrheal diseases almost halved between 2000 and 2015. Does this mean that efforts to expand access to toilets – efforts promoted by events like World Toilet Day (Nov. 19) – are saving lives? The answer is yes and no.

Parallel developments such as the introduction of rotavirus vaccination, better and quicker care for those suffering from diarrheal illness, and nutritional gains for children in some regions have helped. At the same time, access to toilets is critical for capturing human waste that can carry disease-causing micro-organisms, thus reducing the risk that others in the community will be infected. Californians were reminded of this fact by the recent hepatitis A outbreak, which emerged in communities that lack access to housing and sanitation facilities.

Equally important for public health protection, however, is the transport and treatment of toilet waste before it is discharged into the environment. A recent UN report estimates that roughly 80% of global urban wastewater is released without treatment. The World Bank’s Water & Sanitation Program has helped to make that broad statistic more visible at the local level with its municipal “shit flow diagram project. In the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, for example, 99% of the 15 million inhabitants have access to a toilet—but only 2% of human waste is adequately treated before being dumped into surface water bodies nearby. As a result, this low-lying, flood-prone megacity is continually coated in sewage.

Shifting international attention from the provision of toilets to ensuring safe management of human wastes is starting to happen. A few years ago I served on a technical working group convened by UNICEF and the World Health Organization that was tasked with developing recommendations for the new UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on sanitation. Along with several other colleagues on the team, I felt strongly that waste management—and not simply ‘butts on toilets’—had to be given priority within the new targets.

Our efforts were successful. The SDG target 6.2 is to ensure universal access to safely managed sanitation service by 2030. A household’s access is defined not simply by whether they have a toilet, but whether they have a sanitation service that includes safe storage, transport and adequate treatment of waste. The shift in definition has also drawn attention to the much larger gap in human waste management as compared to toilet access. In 2015, 68% of the world’s population had access to a toilet of reasonably good quality, but only 39% had safely managed sanitation.

Identifying political, financial, social, and technical strategies to bring safely managed sanitation service to the 4.4 billion people without it is a mammoth task. Efforts such as container-based sanitation can target hard-to-reach communities, and advancing the science and engineering for resource recovery from wastewater can help improve the economics of sanitation services. Ultimately, it is these beyond-the-toilet efforts that must be stepped up in order to make definitive progress against the burden of diarrheal disease.