Factors Determining Community Support Leading to the Success of Communal Self-Managed Wastewater Treatment System: A Case Study of Low-Income Communities in Bangkok

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ABSTRACT
Most of the existing large-scale central wastewater treatment plants in developing countries provide services to only small, but densely populated catchment areas. Communities located outside these service areas need to establish and manage their own treatment systems. In the Bangkok metropolitan area, the privately built communal plants serving outside areas are usually off-site and small-scale systems, constructed by real estate developers, and handed over to community organizations to operate and maintain. Due to inadequate education and training of the community organizations and the absence of community support for proper management, these decentralized treatment systems rarely operate well and are sometimes abandoned.

To improve the management of these decentralized plants, the concept of “self-management” needs to be developed in order to involve the local community in the delivery of its own services and to reduce their reliance on local government. For success under these conditions, local support is among the crucial factors contributing to the success of communal wastewater management. This study thus examines two major factors influencing wastewater treatment plant design and operation, namely the local residents’ ability to pay for the wastewater treatment services and the extent of community participation. The study hypothesizes that ability to pay and community participation, as part of the community support factors, heavily depend upon the socio-economic attributes (i.e. income and education) and perception of the local residents towards their living environment and quality of life. Using the Rom Klao housing projects at the eastern segment of Bangkok as a case study, the study collected data by a survey of more than 300 residents during the month of July and September 2005.

Level of Community Participation
The study found that social and physical diversity of the community contributes to the specific perceptions of local wastewater problems. For example, the location of communities in relation to the sites of wastewater treatment plants creates different levels of awareness and attitudes towards wastewater issues in the community, which leads to a range of perceptions of residents towards their community environment and infrastructure services. Those who live adjacent to the treatment plants, due to the impact of plant operation such as noise, odor and vectors, tend to be more concerned about the wastewater treatment service and the environmental conditions in their community.

The study initially hypothesized that the residents’ involvement in community activities increases the chance of access to information, their awareness and exposure to environmental problems, and increases their involvement in solving the problems of their own community. It was found that approximately 70 percent of respondents whose families routinely participate in community activities (meetings of residents, religious activities, community maintenance projects, etc.) were more aware of the wastewater treatment systems in their communities. Alternatively a large proportion of respondents are unable to even acknowledge that community activities exist, and are unaware of wastewater issues or the existence of a treatment plant.

The extent of participation also correlates significantly with personal income and the duration of residence in the communities. Long-term residents tend to participate more in their communal activities due to greater sense of belonging and mutual relationships among community members. The low-income groups displayed a significantly greater level of participation in the communal activities than those with higher-income. Age and education level, however, did not demonstrate any significant relationship with the participation of community members.

Ability to Pay
In this study, the term “ability to pay” conveys the meaning of “service affordability” of a household or community in general, and the low-income community in particular. The ability to pay is an important issue, since it reflects the appropriate payment that users are able to pay in exchange for services. The study reveals that approximately 20 percent of residents believe that wastewater treatment should be provided without charge, despite the fact that treatment fees had never been collected directly from users in the study area. Residences in a settlement with better living conditions and better wastewater systems, showed a lower ability to pay. People in lowincome communities without proper sanitation system, on the other hand, expressed a relatively higher ability to pay. The average affordability for the service was 40.02 baht/month (US $1/month).

The study found that the ability to pay for the service strongly depended upon the dwellers’ familial socio-economic conditions, personal and family income, average household income visà- vis family member’s expenses, and the level of education of the head of the household. Survey data also showed that respondents with higher levels of income and education tended to have better ability to pay for the service. Ability to pay was also significantly correlated with dwellers’ satisfaction towards community environment and infrastructure, and respondents’ attitudes towards wastewater treatment systems. Those who discern the importance of communal wastewater treatment system and its necessity tend to be willing to pay a larger amount for the service, while showing lower level of satisfaction toward the existing environmental conditions and quality of infrastructure.

In summary, the study demonstrated a web of relationships among the variables under investigation. The socio-economic and settlement-related factors are crucial for the building of community participation and support. A self-managed wastewater treatment system could be made successful by integrating the community’s self-management approach with the provisions for environmental education and maintenance training. On-site training will likely be an important alternative to provide site-specific information and create incentives for local residents to participate in problem solving. Different forms of communal activities could be initiated to improve public awareness, and reinforce the communities’ participation.

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