It is important to acknowledge that there have been significant efforts to improve how human waste is managed, both for public and environmental health. Likewise, there is a massive global undertaking to address the global sanitation crisis, that includes hundreds of organizations, as well as national governments, that make meeting this critical human need a top priority. While not perfect, these efforts are making progress and bringing a range of exciting solutions to the table. However, with the environmental sector missing in the conversation and actions arounds many of the development solutions, we miss a huge opportunity. Even worse, unintended consequences result, such as ocean habitat degradation. By including the environmental sector more explicitly in the solution space, new perspectives and experts are added, who understand environmental processes that may contribute to the problem or be a part of the solution.
For example, many WASH projects are dealing with triage situations where the most urgent need is to ensure safe drinking water; one of the easiest and cheapest interventions is to provide chlorine tablets to instantly make the water free from life-threatening pathogens. However, the bigger problem of an unsafe water source remains. Looking at this from a whole systems or holistic approach, that considers the environmental context, might lead to considering the condition of the watershed, or what sort of harmful activities are happening upstream that need to be addressed.
Additionally, understanding the roles forests and vegetated land play in purifying, and even providing, water is critical for long-term sustainable solutions. By addressing the source, the need for chlorine tablets down the line is lessened, and other benefits may result by improving environmental conditions or ecological function of surrounding areas. There is also an opportunity to create additional benefits from the combined effort of providing safe sanitation and reducing wastewater pollution. The benefits of resource recovery has massive potential, and when considered as part of a more holistic approach, the end result could be extraordinary environmental and economic benefits, yielding a massive return on investment (see Resource Recovery for more detailed discussion).
A more holistic approach is also a cross-sector approach. That is, the siloed ways of problem solving must become a part of the past. Cross-sector collaboration provides a great opportunity to bring new voices and solutions to the forefront, as well as fortifying and improving upon solutions that create multiple benefits (Wear, 2019). The environmental perspective cannot continue to be an after-thought or an extra benefit, but rather essential to long-term success. And likewise, the environmental sector cannot solve the problem of ocean wastewater pollution without working with the public health, development, and WASH sectors.
Once practitioners fully appreciate the extent and seriousness of this threat to ocean and human health, there will be interest in initiating threat mitigation interventions right away. However, it is important to ensure, or create, enabling conditions for long-term success. Experts from multiple sectors gathered recently to determine the best approach or entry point for the conservation sector. It was determined that there are multiple intervention types, but the first step should be to employ enabling conditions. These strategy sessions considered four main tactical areas: top-down government intervention, on-the-ground threat abatement, building bridges across sectors to influence existing efforts, and building awareness of the threat. It became clear that all four were necessary to achieve the desired outcomes, and that there was an interdependency on each other. For example, on-the-ground support likely requires or benefits from government mandate or support; building bridges depends on an understanding of the threat space. All approaches are necessary, but before real progress can be made, it is important to get everyone on the same page. Thus, raising awareness around the impacts of wastewater pollution in ocean environments must be the first step to pave the way for engagement across stakeholder groups and ensure long-term success.