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100 million safe water gardens for villagers around the world

Posted: Apr 15, 2020 4 minute read Dr Marc van Loo

In tropical villages, wastewater is typically released untreated into the environment. The result is a health tragedy. Worldwide, about 2,000 children die every day as a result, 370 in Indonesia alone.

Developing countries suffer a huge economic and social toll, and it also adds to the larger global environment problem of water pollution. The untreated release of wastewater into rivers and seas leads to oxygen depletion in the world’s water systems, threatening fish stocks and coral reefs worldwide.

In 2014, after the 1-year-old daughter of our resort’s cook died because of inadequate sanitation at home, we made it our life’s work to improve wastewater management systems for rural villages around the world. So with the wonderful local staff of our LooLa Adventure Resort, we initiated the Safe Water Garden project.

The world’s most cost-efficient sanitation system

A combination of septic tanks and leach-fields (one set per household) has long been recognised as a viable solution. Using these, UNICEF, Red Cross and others developed a practical and economical solution for Aceh’s villagers after the 2004 tsunami.

Inspired by this life-saving work, in 2016, we started working with governments, schools, world-class universities and companies –notably the palm oil and plastic sector in the form of Sinar Mas Agribusiness and Food1, Musim Mas and Borouge– to optimise the solution and make it even cheaper and easier to build locally.

After three years of extensive testing, in 2019, we had our result – the Safe Water Garden (SWG). It features 4 main components: a closed tank, a leach field (the garden), a pipe system connecting the parts, and a separate kitchen sink (not pictured). The Indonesian government quickly recognised the SWG’s potential to address the rural sanitation issue, and declared it fit for use early 2020, making the SWG officially the world’s most cost-efficient sanitation system2.


The SWG: a complete rural wastewater management solution and more
If users follow simple maintenance rules, the SWG offers immediate benefits:

  • prevents diseases resulting from open-air contact with human waste
  • lifts social status – the houses no longer smell and feature a beautiful garden
  • improves quality of life – the system is maintenance-free and children can safely play in the garden
  • enhances spiritual well-being – a clean environment and clean public facilities speaks to religious beliefs
  • generates a steady income – the garden pays itself back within two years on account of cash crops
  • imparts household savings of 3-10 percent– from garden income and reduced medical/maintenance bills
  • positively impacts the global environment – the system reduces the release of harmful chemical compounds
  • promotes local ownership – buildable in one day, the SWG is an asset for life for a rural family/school
  • is affordable – a one-off material cost below US$330 is within budget for all communities and much cheaper than other systems

1 Sinar Mas Agribusiness and Food is GAR’s business operation in Indonesia.

2 Compared to the typical (inadequate) traditional big concrete septic tank solution, the SWG is at least 50% cheaper; compared to existing systems of similar standard, it is at least 70% cheaper.

Sinar Mas Agribusiness and Food setting up SWGs in Indonesia
Sinar Mas Agribusiness and Food setting up SWGs in Indonesia.

The SWG future – promoting global sanitation, food security, health

One of our corporate partners, Shell, is about to finish an Open Source (OS) SWG “LEGO-like” construction manual (to be printed in multiple languages) so we can share knowledge efficiently. The roll-out is planned as a private-public partnership that transfers full ownership to the local communities.

The palm oil sector will lead the way in facilitating the roll-out in its adjacent communities, while the (local) Indonesian government has the capacity to organise the public roll-out, referring to the national standards. These roll-out efforts, facilitated by our trusted university and company partners, will also yield important socio-economic insights, particularly on how to successfully transfer knowledge to local communities.

In parallel, we will also conduct further research with the Indonesian government in several areas: optimisation of the SWG crop output, notably chilli (together with rice, chilli is Indonesia’s most important food); design of a lego-like set of plastic parts for the SWGs that can be locally produced (in conjunction with the plastics industry) and more easily assembled in a plug-and-play manner; expand existing research showing that the quality of village water wells can be drastically improved by preventing chickens from defecating in the well; demonstrate that the SWG –with some minor adaptations– is also suitable for sub-optimal (flood-prone or dry) conditions; and show that the SWG works not just in Indonesia, but in all warm countries (not exposed to frost at any time of the year) around the world.

Join us in delivering safe wastewater management to rural areas

Ours is a science project with a firm social goal: we leverage on the power of science and local participation to create a better world through an open-source concept that can be adapted to local conditions.

The SWG coalition is a group of passionate organisations and individuals –including all the research and corporate parties mentioned above– united by a single bold and ambitious aim:

To bring about a global SWG rollout and get these life-saving systems to all village schools and households within the next few years, with Indonesia leading the way.

To be specific, we are aiming for 100 million SWGs by 2025

Will you join us?

To find out how you can join the Safe Water Gardens project, click here.

About the writer:
Dutch by birth, cosmologist by training, educator and international educational author by profession, Dr Marc van Loo opened LooLa Adventure Resort in 2000 – which is one of the world’s most highly decorated eco-resorts.
LooLa’s team – together with LooLa’s guests– has built 500 life-saving sanitation systems (Safe Water Gardens) for village families in Bintan over the last 4 years. Marc then put together an alliance of research institutes and companies and passionate individuals, united in our aim to bring 100 million Safe Water Gardens to villagers around the world within the next 5 years
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