That was a long time ago. In 1999, I was a senior assistant at the Chair of Urban Water Management and lecturer in wastewater treatment technology at ETH Zurich. During my time at ETH, I had worked intensively on the topic of sustainable development in urban water management, including in discussions with colleagues at Eawag. I looked into various topics and finally decided to pursue the idea of urine source separation.
I officially joined Eawag in 1999. The Directorate wanted to initiate a cross-cutting project on sustainable urban water management and offered me the job. I already had some previous experience with such projects as I had been on the project management committee for the research focus since 1993. This was a precursor to the cross-cutting projects. Looking back, Eawag’s openness to breaking new ground was remarkable. Especially the director at the time, Alexander Zehnder, and the two deputy directors believed in my ideas, even though they were quite unconventional. I was offered an exciting position, which then turned into a permanent position.
And then came Novaquatis?
That’s right. Novaquatis was one of Eawag’s first cross-cutting projects in which we spent six years taking a transdisciplinary approach to urine source separation or NoMix technology as a new element of wastewater treatment. Our goal was, and still is, to better protect bodies of water from nutrient inputs and micropollutants and to close nutrient cycles. Novaquatis has demonstrated that NoMix technology is an excellent alternative to centralised nutrient elimination, but has also highlighted the many difficulties involved in implementing these ideas in practice.
Perhaps the most important factor in our success was that we took a holistic view of the issues and involved colleagues from a wide range of disciplines in the project, including social and natural sciences and engineering. We also worked closely with the sanitation industry and local authorities. Today, the involvement of all important stakeholder groups is standard, but 20 years ago this was not nearly as well established.
"Looking back, I was able to bring some new topics to Eawag, which were then taken up by colleagues and are now an integral part of the portfolio."
Do you have any further personal highlights to share?
There are quite a few. First and foremost, I would like to mention the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, which enabled us to develop the Blue Diversion toilet, including the water wall, in collaboration with colleagues from the Sanitation and Water for Development as well as Process Engineering departments from 2011. This became the Autarky toilet in 2014 under the leadership of Kai Udert.
The project once again underscored how crucial it is for different disciplines to work together and for stakeholders to be involved. The involvement of Harald Gründl from EOOS Design transformed the individual disciplinary contributions from Eawag into a coherent whole that could actually be tested in Uganda and Kenya. The two projects, Novaquatis and Blue Diversion, ultimately resulted in a new generation of toilets in series production, which are being used at various locations. Such radical innovations need staying power, the right partners and, above all, an employer with a lot of patience. We haven’t reached our goal yet.
Looking back, I was able to introduce some new topics to Eawag, which were then taken up by colleagues and are now an integral part of the portfolio. One example is the Water Hub in the NEST building of Empa and Eawag, where the developments of the Process Engineering department are used and where we share our experience and knowledge in practice and with industry. In the Water Hub, you can experience in person how wastewater flows are separated directly at the source and treated in the building itself. Another, perhaps more indirect example is the inter- and transdisciplinary research programme Wings (Water and Sanitation Innovations for Non-Grid Solutions), which, among other things, addressed the question of how water supply and wastewater disposal can be carried out flexibly and in a resource-efficient manner in rapidly expanding cities.