Most Americans simply flush the toilet and human waste disappears out of sight and out of mind.

But in some rural areas, people often face hazardous sewage leaking into their yards or backing up into their sinks and bathtubs.

“We have been shamed to not discussing these problems,” says Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. “That’s why people don’t know about it,”

For years, Flowers has worked to address sanitation problems in Lowndes County, Alabama, where she grew up.

There, many residents live beyond the reach of the municipal wastewater system, so they rely on septic systems to filter wastewater on-site.

But their septic systems often fail. Flowers says they do not work effectively in this region because hard clay soil does not absorb water well. And climate change is causing more extreme storms. 

“If we get a lot of rain, the septic systems are going to fail,” she says.

Flowers says people in many regions face similar challenges. So she says it’s important to develop new technologies that can handle the changing climate.

“With sea level rising, groundwater levels increasing, we’ve got to do something different,” she says.

Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media.

Also see: A conversation with White House adviser and environmental justice advocate Catherine Coleman Flowers