Tech start-up could solve slum drainage challenge

The start-up team by a stormwater drain (l-r) - Ralf Habermehl, Ulrich Dittmer, Timo Dilly, Amin Bakhshipour, Marius Lauer. Image: RPTU, Voss

A start-up company in Kaiserslautern, Germany has designed software that automatically optimises sustainable drainage systems and is suitable for use in city slums and informal settlements.

Towns and cities in countries like Germany already have well-developed infrastructure with sewer networks and wastewater treatment plants to collect rainwater and wastewater. In developing countries, such infrastructure is very often not in place.

A technology company has developed a solution - software that automatically designs and optimises sustainable drainage systems (SuDS), that takes into account blue-green infrastructure for the infiltration and evaporation of rainwater before it reaches sewer networks or rivers and streams. By integrating green areas with plants and trees, with the 'blue' watercourses, ponds, lakes and storm drainage, stormwater can be managed closer to where it falls, creating more resilient, pleasant and healthy urban spaces. This makes the technology attractive to municipal authorities.

“The way we deal with rainwater needs to be completely reviewed in light of increasing weather extremes. What we need are solutions to store rainwater, alongside natural areas such as sufficient green spaces.

Timo Dilly, Sustainable Water Infrastructure Solutions

In many parts of the world, there are slums where thousands of people live in close proximity to each other, with piles of rubbish and pools of sewage, where germs can quickly multiply. Almost half the world's population still lives without a sewer connection, and new urban areas are constantly being built without proper drainage.

The United Nations has set itself the goal of providing access to clean water and sanitation for all people in its sustainable development goals, but this requires appropriate infrastructure. Planning sewer networks for wastewater and rainwater involves a great deal of effort and requires a high level of expertise.

“Different criteria such as layout, the degree of decentralisation or centralisation, the sewer diameters and gradients, the installation depths and the pumping and storage systems all play a role,” says Timo Dilly, part of the start-up team.

Dilly and his team at the University Kaiserslautern-Landau are currently developing a software programme called Ziggurat, which can be used to automatically plan urban drainage systems in a sustainable way.

The Ziggarat software is suitable for automatic sewer network planning, (l-r) Timo Dilly, Ralf Habermehl, Amin Bakhshipour, Ulrich Dittmer. Image: RPTU, Voss

“The software is based, among other factors, on the combination of a large number of generally applicable technical rules for civil engineering planning, and mathematical methods that can be used to generate sensible solution variants,” continues Dilly.

“For this purpose, we have developed our own algorithms. All of this is based on the latest findings from our own research work in urban drainage and hydroinformatics."

Climate change also plays a role in the planning of such drainage systems, as Dilly explains, “The way we deal with rainwater needs to be completely reviewed in light of increasing weather extremes.

"What we need are solutions to store rainwater, alongside natural areas such as sufficient green spaces. This can help improve the urban climate in hot summer months.”

This kind of blue-green infrastructure is becoming increasingly important in planning new urban drainage systems and is included in plans for Ziggurat.

“These measures increase cities' resilience to extreme events, reduce costs and minimise negative effects on the environment,” he says.

The software is suitable for any city or municipality looking to adapt its drainage systems. Dilly and his colleagues are now involved in a spinout company called Sustainable Water Infrastructure Solutions. In future, the company intends to provide its software on an online platform where interested parties can create an account for a fee. In addition to the software, the team from Kaiserslautern also provides its expertise and offers support when it comes to planning.

The company is supported by an Exist grant from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs & Climate Action, and the European Social Fund for University-based Business Start-Ups.