Case Study 5: Providing Safe Sanitation Options to Alaska’s Most Vulnerable Communities
Access to water and basic sanitation are recognized as fundamental human rights by the United Nations. Most of the international attention on filling the gaps is on Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, yet even in the United States, one of the world’s wealthiest nations, we fall short.
Nowhere in the U.S. is this starker than in Alaskan Native communities, 33 of which do not have running water or sanitation available for their residents. Living in situations that would be foreign to most Americans, these residents they haul their household’s human waste to central collection facilities, often miles from their homes (a ‘honey bucket’ system). Hauling the waste exposes family members to disease and bacterial infection. In addition to having no piped sanitation, and soils that are unacceptable for pit latrines, the lack of running water makes it challenging to wash and clean thoroughly. Elevated respiratory disease and pneumonia in these households is well documented. Further confounding the search for solutions is that many of these communities are dealing with sea-level rise and are in active planning and execution of moving their entire village miles inland. Once a community decides it needs to move, federal funding for infrastructure upgrades is frozen, cutting them off from badly needed financing.
“Water utilities are generally still a relatively new concept for tribal communities. We’ve have been forced into this western model that we have never been a part of.” – Tribal leader working with Alaskan Native communities
Taking matters into their own hands, the Alaskan Native Tribal Health Center (ANTHC) has developed the Portable Alternative Sanitation System or PASS, giving new hope to the roughly 3,000 Alaskan Native households without safe water or sanitation. Each PASS unit is designed as a stand-alone, off-grid installation appropriate for Alaska’s harsh conditions. Special urine-diverting toilets separate the relatively benign liquid component of human waste from the more biologically active sold component. Urine can be safely disposed of in drainage pits near the home, while dried feces can be safely and easily transported to a landfill or burned on site. Water tanks, which can be filled with rainwater or trucked water, provide a reliable source of indoor water.
The PASS units are, as the name implies, portable and can move with the household. While at $40,000 per installation the PASS units are not inexpensive to build, they are affordable to operate. At $30/month, most households can manage the cost. PASS units have been installed in five Alaskan Native villages to date. Funding has been primarily through tribal dollars and private philanthropy, but now that they have shown their effectiveness federal funds are becoming available. PASS is not seen as a permanent solution to Alaskan sanitation challenges, but rather a transitional measure on the path to more mainstream sanitation alternatives.
 ANTHC. 2019. Portable Alternative Sanitation System connects in-home sanitation systems where it was impossible before. Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. March 20. Accessed at: https://anthc.org/news/portable-alternative-sanitation-system-connects-in-home-sanitation-systems-where-it-was-impossible-before/