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Romania - Safe Drinking Water

Developing a participatory democracy, creating a network of local environmental NGOs and implementing effective and reproducible small-scale projects for safe drinking water solutions.


Countries: Romania
Donors: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, European Cooperation, MATRA programme, The Netherlands
Partners: Medium & Sanitas
Issues: Water & Sanitation, Biodiversity & Food
Duration: 01/2002 - 01/2004


Only 11 % of the rural population have sanitary sewage at home.

Seven million people in rural areas of Romania get their drinking water from wells. These wells are often polluted with nitrates, bacteria, and pesticides.

Poor sanitary conditions and latrines, the mismanagement of waste dumps and agricultural waste cause groundwater and surface water pollution. Health effects include both the long term (thyroid and brain dysfunction) and the immediate (blue-baby-disease, diarrhoea, parasitic diseases, hepatitis). They can be lethal to adults, but in particular to newborn babies and small children.

The Romanian national drinking water legislation has been adapted to conform to the EU directives. However, the EU directive excludes wells, which provide less than 50 persons or 10m3 per day, from these quality and control mechanisms. The decision how to deal with these wells lies with the member states. The Romanian regulation states that public wells have to be monitored every four months by the communal authorities. Closure results, if the water quality does not comply with the drinking water regulation. However, in most villages there is no budget for monitoring, maintenance of public wells and no alternatives for obtaining unpolluted water.

Medium & Sanitas (M&S) selected the village of Garla Mare for the pilot project. Health statistics showed that many cases of methaemoglobinaemia (blue baby disease) had occurred there. Blue baby disease is linked to diarrhoea, intestinal or stomach infections in combination with high nitrate levels in water used for baby drinks or food / formula. Affected infants develop a peculiar blue-grey skin colour and may become irritable or lethargic, depending on the severity of the condition.

Project Goals

  • To raise public awareness on water quality as an essential step towards better health in the population.
  • To mobilise the citizens of the project town and rural community to take on more responsibility for their health and the health of their environment and to become more active in local water management policy-making.
  • To actively involve women in local policy-making and implementing local solutions for cleaner drinking water.
  • To identify short and medium term solutions for the improvement of water quality in the project town and the rural community.
  • To develop practical water improvement projects. These projects will preferably address the drinking water related risks for vulnerable groups such as children, pregnant women and senior citizens.

Project implementation

Preliminary water testing

(For detailed information see the document Reducing effects of polluted drinking water on children´s health in rural Romania, Case study CEHAPE, 2003)

M&S and WECF started in Garla Mare with an investigation of the water quality of the 78 public wells. The tests showed three types of pollutants in the drinking water; very high levels of faecal bacteria, nitrates and the pesticide ‘atrazine’. None of the public wells had clean water (nitrate levels averaged 120 mg/l with peaks over 500 mg/l, faecal streptococci averaged up to 5,420/100ml, and atrazine was up to 160 ng/l). Water from a spring contained atrazine concentration of 500 ng/l.

The EU directive accepts 50 mg/l of nitrate, 0/100ml of faecal streptococci, and 100 ng/l for atrazine. The high faecal bacteria levels point to the use of conventional pit latrines in people’s gardens. Agriculture or possibly a dumping of pesticides caused the groundwater pollution with ‘atrazine’, a persistent, hormone-disrupting pesticide.


A project committee of villagers was established for cooperation and developing solutions to reduce water pollution. The project committee and project staff organised a water-test day where the villagers could come with a sample from their well and test the nitrate levels. By using nitrate quick tests, the water testing became a very visible and convincing experience for the villagers who are usually wary of official statistics.

First project phase: research and investigation of alternatives

A survey carried out by M&S showed hardly any awareness about the link between polluted water and health. The two schools and one kindergarten in the village did not have functioning wells and provided no means for children to wash their hands after using the toilets. The pit-latrines in the schools were badly built with the floor sloping towards the entrance door. Children had to first walk through wastewater before getting to the latrine.

An engineering firm from Bucharest conducted another hydro-geological study after an existing study by the regional authorities proved insufficient. An in-depth gender-balanced socio-economic analysis was carried out. This analysis showed that the income level of most families was so low that they could hardly provide enough food and pay for the electricity bill. Most families had non-sealed pit latrines which were not emptied. When the pit was full, the latrine was simply moved. Families with a small garden cleaned out the pit latrines as they could not move them. See the Socio-economic and gender study.

A public meeting was organised in the town hall where the project staff presented the survey results. Experts presented possible solutions ranging from a centralised water supply connected to a large filter, to preventive measures such as ecological sanitation and organic farming.

During ensuing discussions three preventive measures were decided upon: a short-term emergency solution and a medium and long-term solution. Financial means to invest in, operate and maintain a central drinking water system were not available.

Second project phase: implementation of practical improvements

  1. Short-term solution: Clean water and better hygiene in the school
    One water filter was specially designed for the high-nitrate and bacterial pollution in the village. This filter was installed in the two schools and in the dispensary and was made accessible to all the villagers who had small children and other persons at risk at home. In both schools, the project provided six hand-washing basins in a covered area. The children could finally wash their hands after using the toilet.
  2. Medium-term solution: hygienic toilets which do not pollute the groundwater
    A toilet facility with four double vaults dry urine diverting toilets and three waterless urinals were installed in September 2003 at a primary school with about 200 pupils (aged 6–10 years) and seven teachers. (GTZ ecosan Database)
    The practical implementation and installation of the ecological sanitation toilets was supported by the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg (TUHH) and WECF. It was intended to serve as an example of how to improve sanitation and protect ground water in an affordable way even if there is no connection to a sewage system or water system for flushing.
    Dry urine diverting toilets – also called ecological sanitation or ecosan toilets - have three major advantages over flush toilets: they are inexpensive, require no connection to a sewage system, do not use (drinking)-water for flushing and avoid faecal material or urine from getting into the groundwater.
    After proper treatment and sanitation of the urine and faeces, the waste matter becomes a high quality safe fertiliser and can help to close the nutrient loop since urine is rich in nitrogen, potassium and other nutrients (Guidelines for the safe use of wastewater, excreta and greywater, Volume 4, Excreta and greywater use in the agriculture and Guidelines on the safe use of Urine and Faeces in Crop Production at

    Education material was published to explain the benefits of the dry-toilets. Workshops about how to use and maintain the ecosan toilets were also organised for teachers, parents and the children attending the primary school where they were installed. Special attention was placed on possible health risks of ecosan toilets. See Ecological Sanitation andAassociated Hygenic Risks.
  3. Long-term solution: addressing agricultural pollution: Generally organic farming does not pollute the groundwater, is better for the health of the villagers and can be more economic due to the demand in Western Europe for organic produce and the willingness of consumers to pay a primium price for it. The project staff and project committee organised a training visit for 20 farmers from Garla Mare.

Community mobilisation

The main goals of the MATRA project “Safe Drinking Water” were to increase citizens’ participation in community projects and “democracy building”. Although a project committee was established, it was difficult for the committee members to develop their own initiatives for the project or to establish a women’s group. Until this project started, the involved people had very little experience in forming community-based organisations.

In order to increase citizens’ participation in the project it may be necessary to organise women’s meetings or to establish a women’s group so as to actively engage them in the decision-making process. With this aim in mind, a student from the Dutch Wageningen University worked with some - mostly female - citizens of Garla Mare. Special attention was given to the Roma population of Garla Mare. See Experience in a Roma District. The seeds for an independent environmental women group in Garla Mare were sown.

Further information

Although the MATRA project was officially finished in February 2004, WECF kept in contact with the authorities and citizens of Garla Mare supporting further developments in the village.

WECF and the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg have continued monitoring the filters and toilets after they were installed. Urine and faeces samples were collected and analysed. Farmers were instructed and assisted on how to apply the urine to their fields. WECF and a Dutch student supported the women’s group in setting-up their NGO by helping to overcome bureaucratic and organisational obstacles.

One year after the installation of the ecosan toilets in Garla Mare school children, teachers, the school caretaker and local residents were interviewed about their experiences with the new ecosan toilets. The results have been published here. See From pit-latrine to ecological toilet - Results of a user-survey on dry urine diverting school toilets and pit latrines in Garla Mare, Romania.

In cooperation with the new NGO of Garla Mare a new one-year project was started in 2005 - Sustainable Development for All.

Links on ecological sanitation

Contact at WECF:

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