Work Plan
The Environmental Colours of Microfinance
Treating Sewage Naturally...and bringing in the tourists!


by David Redwood (Winter '96)

An innovative but natural approach to sewage treatment is providing a small community in Nova Scotia, Canada, with clean water, worldwide attention and, believe it or not, a tourist attraction!

The community is Bear River (population 881) and it is their new "Solar Aquatics" water treatment plant which has been the talk of the town ever since it was set up last winter.

And no wonder. How often do you get to see a modern sewage treatment facility rely on living organisms to do its work? The greenhouse sheltering this natural system is not only turning sewage into clean water, it is also attracting significant economic activity to an area in chronic need of jobs.

At first glance it IS hard to believe. The structure houses a series of clear-sided cylinders holding snails, plants, fish, protozoa and algae. It looks peaceful -- almost too quiet and clean for a sewage treatment plant.

However, within the tanks these creatures are busy breaking down a steady stream of waste. Plants like cattails and irises absorb toxic chemicals. Snails suck up growth on the sides of the transparent cylinders to allow essential sunlight to shine through the water. Other animals are sacrificed to species further up the food chain. Fish, among the more predatory of these workers, are busy wiggling in the tanks -- aerating the water and helping remove the obnoxious smell that is often found in other conventional water treatment plants.

The system's inventor, John Todd, has long advocated this kind of ecological design as "the application of these [natural] relationships to human need and to the integration of humanity with the larger natural world around us." One of those needs has been the community's desire to stop raw sewage from being dumped into their river. By all accounts, sewage treated at the facility is clean and can now enter the river harmlessly.

Bob Johnstone, the county councillor largely credited with making Bear River's new plant a reality, was initially attracted to the idea because it was "nature looking after its own." The facility's relatively low cost and its simple technology helped secure the support of the town as well as the other councillors.

The facility was designed and built by a Nova Scotian company which largely used contractors from the local area. A plan has been worked out for residents needing to hook up to the sewage treatment plant to borrow money from the County and pay it back in installments over a long period of time. This has eased the transition for the area's largely low-income residents.

But it has been the extent of the economic benefits stemming from the plant that has most sparked the interest of locals. These benefits have helped to offset the economic downturn caused partly by the closure of nearby Cornwallis military base.

Once built, the facility got an incredible response. By the end of August alone, over 8,000 outsiders had come to see this unusual water treatment plant. It is not often that a sewage plant operator has to deal with tourists interested in her work -- but manager Carol Armstrong has become versatile.

Attributing most of the tourists to the media attention focused on the facility, Mrs. Armstrong reports that at first "...it was absolutely a nuthouse -- just herds of people." The plant has been seen across Canada on CBC, and worldwide on CNN. Publications as diverse as the Nova Scotia Business Journal and Harrowsmith have also reported on the story.

This attention has meant visitors. And visitors mean business.

Local inns, craft shops, and the town's two restaurants reported an increase in business of about 37% from the previous summer. Since this September, elementary school tours from around Annapolis County have taken up the slack: the students descend upon the facility in droves to learn about sewage and engineered eco-systems. The facility will eventually have the capacity (and the sewage) to grow ornamental plants for commercial sale.

Annapolis County eventually had to hire someone in May to give tours so Mrs. Armstrong could get back to operating the plant. A student was hired for the peak months of June, July and August. But while tourists are certainly important, councillors like Mr. Johnstone and communities like Bear River have not forgotten their main task is stop the flow of human waste entering the river in an affordable and sustainable way.

With unemployment a constant problem in rural communities, the economic benefits that arise from taking bold new steps in community-based environmental protection deserves applause.

David Redwood is a Halifax-based writer, and works with youth and development education programmes.
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