• Wastewater Engineer: Dr. Ashley Murray
    Ashley Murray is a wastewater engineer.

    Photograph by Matthew Muspratt

    By National Geographic Education

    Monday, September 12, 2011

    Ashley is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. She is working with businesses and governments in Africa to reuse wastewater as a profitable enterprise.

    Ashley’s business, Waste Enterprisers, is actually a network of many small businesses. Waste Enterprisers uses human waste as its primary input. (Yes, “human waste” is poop!) The waste contributes to such enterprises as a fish farm and, possibly, industrial fuel.

    By making people aware of the financial cost of sanitation and waste, Ashley says we can begin to put a serious value on both the raw materials (nutrients in waste) and sanitation itself.

    EARLY WORK

    Ashley grew up with the “reduce, reuse, and recycle” goal. Although wastewater was never a dominant issue in Andover, Massachusetts, where she grew up, she was always aware of the importance of saving water and keeping it clean.

    Ashley earned her PhD from the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California at Berkeley.

    MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK


    “Trying to prove sanitation can be a viable business model.”

    MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK

    Obsession. “I’m always thinking about the possibilities for new methods, resources. . . . My friends are sick of hearing about [poop]!” she laughs.

    HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?


    “The social and cultural context of an idea or place.”

    GEO-CONNECTION

    Ashley first became aware of the sanitary hazards posed by wastewater through literature and personal experience. National Geographic Fellow Sandra Postel’s book Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity forced Ashley to confront the idea that Earth has a limited supply of freshwater—for agriculture, drinking, industry, and sanitation.

    When Ashley moved to Ghana, the implications of a lack of freshwater became clear. “Any surface water is an open sewage stream,” she says. “It’s hard to overstate the enormous health and environmental impacts of inadequate sanitation.”

    It was also in Ghana that Ashley realized the biggest barrier to sanitation is economics. “The standard model is that the government takes care of waste. Well, in a developing nation like Ghana, the government can’t afford to be responsible for all the waste. So we needed a new business model. The new model provides incentives to entrepreneurs and residents to recycle their waste.”

    For a small fee, Waste Enterprisers will pick up a client’s waste and responsibly put it to use. “It’s changing the way we finance sanitation, and looking at waste as a resource—chemical fertilizer,” Ashley explains.

    The fertilizer feeds an aquaculture farm that uses a system of ponds. Hazardous chemicals are filtered out in the first series of ponds. By the final ponds, the water is full of nutrients that allow catfish to flourish.

    Even though the ponds are safe, Ashley is quick to say the fish could never be sold raw. However, fish in Ghana are not sold as a raw product. They are smoked until they resemble a dry, durable, jerky-like product. “The way fish is sold in Ghana makes it possible for fish grown in fish ponds to be safely sold and eaten,” Ashley says.

    Ashley admits the idea of eating fish grown in a pond fertilized with human waste may be a tough sell to Western consumers. “The technology is transferrable, but not socially or culturally.”

    SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN . . . ENVIRONMENTAL ENTREPRENEUR

    Ashley strongly recommends pursuing an engineering degree. “Any engineering program gives you a strong tech base, and you can use that for almost any business.”

    GET INVOLVED

    Although she now lives in Accra, Ghana, Ashley lived in China and India for years, and she encourages everyone to “travel for the sake of travel.”

    Just visiting different regions or countries can result in “real exposure to other cultures,” she says. “It can be really rewarding, and you’re also spending money in the area and contributing to the economy.”

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    agriculture Noun

    the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

    Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture
    aquaculture Noun

    the art and science of cultivating marine or freshwater life for food and industry.

    catfish Noun

    freshwater fish with wiry organs that look like whiskers on its upper jaw.

    chemical Noun

    molecular properties of a substance.

    client Noun

    person who employs a professional or expert, such as a lawyer, accountant, or engineer.

    confront Verb

    to address a problem or person directly.

    consumer Noun

    person who uses a good or service.

    context Noun

    set of facts having to do with a specific event or situation.

    culture Noun

    learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

    developing world Noun

    nations with low per-capita income, little infrastructure, and a small middle class.

    dominant Adjective

    main or most important.

    durable Adjective

    strong and long-lasting.

    economics Noun

    study of monetary systems, or the creation, buying, and selling of goods and services.

    economy Noun

    system of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.

    Emerging Explorer Noun

    an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.

    engineering Noun

    the art and science of building, maintaining, moving, and demolishing structures.

    enormous Adjective

    very large.

    enterprise Noun

    a project, usually one seeking a profit.

    entrepreneur Noun

    person who starts and manages a business.

    environmental impact Noun

    incident or activity's total effect on the surrounding environment.

    fee Noun

    price or cost.

    fertilizer Noun

    nutrient-rich chemical substance (natural or manmade) applied to soil to encourage plant growth.

    finance Verb

    to fund or provide money to an organization or individual, usually for a specific purpose.

    financial Adjective

    having to do with money.

    flourish Verb

    to thrive or be successful.

    freshwater Noun

    water that is not salty.

    fuel Noun

    material that provides power or energy.

    government Noun

    system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

    hazard Noun

    danger or risk.

    human waste Noun

    byproduct of human digestion - feces or urine.

    implication Noun

    suggestion or hint.

    inadequate Adjective

    not enough or not of high-enough quality.

    incentive Noun

    offer or encouragement to complete a task.

    industrial Adjective

    having to do with factories or mechanical production.

    industry Noun

    activity that produces goods and services.

    input Noun

    something that is contributed, or put in, to something else.

    jerky Noun

    dry, chewy strips of meat that have been preserved by smoking or other methods.

    literature Noun

    written material, including novels, poetry, drama and history.

    nation Noun

    political unit made of people who share a common territory.

    Encyclopedic Entry: nation
    network Noun

    series of links along which movement or communication can take place.

    nutrient Noun

    substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

    Encyclopedic Entry: nutrient
    PhD Noun

    (doctor of philosophy) highest degree offered by most graduate schools.

    pond Noun

    small body of water surrounded by land.

    primary Adjective

    first or most important.

    profitable Adjective

    able to make money.

    raw material Noun

    matter that needs to be processed into a product to use or sell.

    recommend Verb

    to advise, approve, or suggest.

    recycle Verb

    to clean or process in order to make suitable for reuse.

    reduce Verb

    to lower or lessen.

    region Noun

    any area on the Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

    Encyclopedic Entry: region
    resource Noun

    available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.

    reuse Verb

    to use again.

    sanitation Noun

    promotion of hygiene, health, and cleanliness.

    sewage Noun

    liquid and solid waste material from homes and businesses.

    smoke Verb

    to preserve meat by drying it with smoke.

    technology Noun

    the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

    transfer Verb

    to pass or switch from one to another.

    travel Noun

    movement from one place to another.

    viable Adjective

    capable of growing and sustaining itself.

    wastewater Noun

    water that has been used for washing, flushing, or industry.

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