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Rural sewage treatment

Essentially this is the same procedure as within a municipal district. The one major difference being that there is no 'make-it-all-ok' treatment plant. We are in the hands of nature and we have to be sensitive to the natural phenomena or things can go horribly wrong (i.e. the simple systems fail, and we’re quite literally in the pooh!).

The three types of rural sewage systems

  1. Pit latrines or long drop toilets, which are just holes dug in the ground with a privacy shed.
  2. Septic tanks with their soakaway drain or leach field - rudimentary, time-tested, usually single-house 'sewage plants'.
  3. Package plants compact treatment works, which may serve one large home or country lodge up to a cluster of neighbouring residences or public facilities.

  1. Pit latrines

    The Pit latrine or 'long drop' is probably the most numerous group of toilet type worldwide. Usually found in sub-economic, primitive or socially disadvantaged communities, it is essentially what its name implies: a hole in the ground. A pit toilet will last until it fills. This is infinitely variable and a factor of size combined with frequency of usage. Diet also pays its part, the higher the 'fibre' the quicker it fills. Read more on Pit latrines.

  2. Septic tanks

    Septic tanks are believed to be invented over 150 years ago in France when peasants flocked together swelling townships at the commencement of the Industrial Revolution. Septic tanks consist of two separate parts:

    1. A pair of in-ground digestion tanks that receive and break down water-borne faecal material from the dwelling;
    2. A soakaway (French drain, seepage drain or leach field) where the transporting water containing dissolved/emulsified COD is progressively 'cleaned' and 'polished' by slowly soaking over a wide surface area into the surrounding soil.
    For septic tanks to function properly, it is essential that they receive only human sewage wastes and not waste 'grey' wash water. They do not require any energy input and work on anaerobic principles. There are limitations on the positioning and suitability of soakaways vis-á-vis soil types, etc. Read more about Septic tanks.
  3. Sewage treatment package plants

    These are relatively new innovations, replacing the soakaways in sensitive or crowded areas. Generally additions to the 'biodigesting' septic tanks, they can be designed to produce final effluent of good (re-usable) quality. Learn more about Sewage treatment package plants.

Managing rural sewage

There are DWAF regulations regarding the proximity of sewage disposal systems to natural water courses. As a general rule, there must be at least 100m from the discharge point (your soakaway, for example) to the centre of the water course/river in upper/inland catchment areas. The soakaway must also be above the highest flood line recorded in the last 50 years.

An existing septic tank may be granted special dispensation. But if it is a new construction, it may be necessary to catch the sewage in a small wet-well and pump it back to a point where a tank and/or soakaway can be placed outside the influence of the water course. If in doubt ask your local catchment manager as the goal posts are often moved.

BIO-SYSTEMS products that aid rural sewage disposal include:

  1. Pit Latrine Reviver (PLR)
  2. Septic Tank Reviver (STR)

Click on the BIO-SYSTEMS Product table for a complete list of products. Also see our Pit latrine case histories.

We supply drawings for both septic tanks and soakaways and can advise on the sizes necessary if you let us know the number of residents and the soil type. There is a small fee for this, usually around R250 + Vat for the full package, which we can send to you via email. For more details and publications on septic systems please ask us on

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