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Turning sewage into fresh water: Eco-ponds at Ocer Campion Jesuit College, Uganda

16 December 2011

Students from Ocer Campion Jesuit College stock 2,000 Nile tilapia fingerlings, a freshwater fish, in school pond. Photo Credit: Ocer Campion Jesuit College

Jim Strzok, SJ

A lot of our motivation at Ocer Campion Jesuit College (a Jesuit secondary school in Gulu, Uganda) for being environmentally friendly comes from living under the shadow, sometimes under the gaze, of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).  As UNEP’s headquarters are situated in Nairobi, Kenya, where we live as a Jesuit community, we can constantly access updated materials on environmental issues.

Four years ago, UNEP was forming regulations for the headwaters of the Nile River.  In Gulu, we are located within the Nile River Basin, since the local stream Unyama River forms the eastern boundary of our 100-acre property.  We are fortunate to have 18 perennial springs on our property.  This spring water as well as surface water run into the Unyama River and then eventually into the Nile River about 100 kilometers away.  What we kept in mind when we built our eco-ponds was to ensure the local headwaters of the Nile should not be contaminated by our sewage.

Moreover, since Ocer Campion Gulu will grow in student numbers within the upcoming years, the amount of sewerage will grow, too.  The local method of dealing with wastewater is by dumping into latrines and deep toilet pits.  However, as the population grows, such methods will lead to contaminating the shallow aquifers.  What we sought in view of this problem was to model conservation by showing another way of dealing with black water.

School days at Ocer Campion Jesuit College. Photo Credit: Ocer Campion Jesuit College

In our eco-ponds, we collect and move all our black water through a long sewerage system into septic tanks and then into a set of three ponds.  Currently, we have soak pits, but the long-range plan is to tie all black water and even grey water from each house, hostel, kitchen, dining room, and classroom into one system.  Foul water first passes through a septic tank located at each building.  It then moves down a slope to a set of holding ponds where bacteria, algae, and plants do their work purifying the sewerage and making it non-toxic.

The first pond is an open-air structure about ten meters long by two meters wide.  Its bottom is stepped.  The black water enters this pond on one end.  Aerobic bacteria and algae digest the nutrients and break down the black water, which is still toxic to most plants and insects.  This water then overflows into a second pond, which receives the digested water through an overflow outlet, adding oxygen in the process.  In this pond, we already placed plants like bullrushes and lilies.  The treated water flows afterwards through an overflow outlet to a third pond.  Receiving somewhat clarified water, this third station offers a habitat to fresh water plants, even to fish.  Insects like dragonflies and water skitters can live, showing that the water is no longer toxic.  Thereby, the water can be used in irrigation of gardens or to flow into the local streams without causing bio-hazards.

Our eco-ponds combine social engagement with environmental awareness and help us to respect the integrity of the water cycle.  It is a model that might deserve imitation not only in Africa.

Jim Strzok, SJ. Photo Credit: Ocer Campion Jesuit College

Jim Strzok, SJ is Retreat Director and Construction Manager and supervises the construction of Ocer Campion Jesuit College.  Working in Africa since 1986, he is the chairman of the Eastern Africa Province’s Building Committee and presently supervises the construction of several Jesuit buildings in Nairobi, while doing retreat work.  He also taught chemistry, physics, and earth sciences before moving to Uganda and is Provincial Delegate for Kenya.  He can be reached through his email strzokj (at) sjeafr.org and for more information, please visit the OCJC website .

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