By Swastika Maney
From achieving an undergraduate, Honours and Master’s degree in her 20s to a PhD and set of twins in her 30s, it is no wonder that Dr Preyan Arumugam-Nanoolal likens graduating from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) to reaching the top of a mountain after a very long, challenging hike.
“Yes, there have been times when I wanted to give up, find a job and finally transition from the student stage of my life, but my family, who have been my biggest supporters, managed to keep me on track,” she said.
After completing her undergraduate and Honours degrees in Biological Sciences in 2008 and 2009, respectively, Dr Arumugam-Nanoolal went on to complete her Master’s degree in Biology in 2011. During this time she also worked as a research assistant, teaching assistant and an ad hoc lecturer in the School of Life Sciences at UKZN.
An article about a child drowning in a pit toilet was a pivotal moment in her academic career, and she decided to focus on research that would improve sanitation in South Africa. Her PhD journey began in 2015 - incidentally in a field she had no training in. Her motivation also stemmed from the fact that she had formerly had a “flush-and-forget” mindset, with little interest in how and if sanitation waste was treated.
Taking a transdisciplinary approach, Dr Arumugam-Nanoolal’s PhD focused on sanitation options for unserved communities such as informal settlements in eThekwini. “A flushing toilet has always been regarded as the gold standard in sanitation,” she explained. “Yet it is not practical for a water-scarce country like South Africa to continue to use potable water for flushing.
“Municipalities are sometimes forced to provide waterborne sanitation for informal communities as a result of the legacies of apartheid that saw inequalities in service delivery, especially when it came to sanitation.”
She reiterated that even if these communities are provided with water-efficient toilets in their households, the wastewater that is generated needs to be treated; while ageing and poorly maintained infrastructure in conventional wastewater treatment works mean that it needs to be rerouted.
Dr Arumugam-Nanoolal recommends a decentralised approach to sanitation. “DEWATS (Decentralised Wastewater Treatment Systems) provide an alternative to conventional large wastewater treatment works, in that the raw domestic wastewater is gravity-fed to a series of modules which uses physical and biological treatment processes requiring no electricity or chemicals, and is thus more affordable.
“Moreover, since it is smaller in area than conventional wastewater treatment works, it can be constructed near the point of generation, filling the gap between the served and unserved communities provided with waterborne sanitation.”
Dr Arumugam-Nanoolal’s PhD research evaluated different designs of DEWATS to determine which produced effluent quality safe for discharge back into the environment. She conducted her research in the field at an existing demonstration-scale DEWATS constructed in eThekwini, treating raw domestic wastewater from 84 households.
Grateful that her research has been relevant, Dr Arumugam-Nanoolal said: “I have been fortunate to be a part of a group of multidisciplinary scientists and engineers at UKZN’s Water Sanitation & Hygiene Research & Development Centre (WASH R&D) who focus on applied research and work closely with the eThekwini Water and Sanitation unit through a Memorandum of Agreement.”