What happens when you flush a toilet in the world's tallest building

The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world. It's located in Dubai, a city with a lot of other skyscrapers. What Dubai doesn't have: A central sewage infrastructure that can accommodate the needs of a bunch of skyscrapers.

You see the problem.

Last night, while listening to NPR's Fresh Air, I heard Kate Ascher, author of The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper, explain what happens to sewage from the Burj and Dubai's other tall buildings. It's only Tuesday, and this may be the craziest fact I hear all week.

TERRY GROSS: Right. So you know, you write that in Dubai they don't have, like, a sewage infrastructure to support high-rises like this one. So what do they do with the sewage?

KATE ASCHER: A variety of buildings there, some can access a municipal system but many of them actually use trucks to take the sewage out of individual buildings and then they wait on a queue to put it into a waste water treatment plant. So it's a fairly primitive system.

GROSS: Well, these trucks can wait for hours and hours on line.

ASCHER: That's right. I'm told they can wait up to 24 hours before they get to the head of the queue. Now, there is a municipal system that is being invested in and I assume will connect all of these tall buildings in some point in the near future, but they're certainly not alone. In India many buildings are responsible for providing their own water and their own waste water removal.

So it's, it's really – we're very fortunate in this country that we assume we can plug into an urban system that can handle whatever waste the building produces. That's not the case everywhere else in the world.

GROSS: Well, it really illustrates one of the paradoxes of modern life, that we have these just incredible structures that reach, you know, that seem to reach to the sky and then in a place like Dubai you have a 24 hour long line of trucks waiting to dispose of the waste from those buildings.

ASCHER: Right. Well, you know, you have to remember that a place like Dubai really emerged in the last 50 years. It was a sleepy, you know, Bedouin town half a century ago. And what you do is when you bring in the world's, you know, most sophisticated architects and engineers, you can literally build anything, including a building of 140 or 150 stories. But designing a municipal network of sewage treatment is in some ways more complex.

It certainly requires more money and more time to make it happen, so one just seemed to jump ahead of the other.

Image: Big Rigs, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from daveseven's photostream


  1. This seems like a really fragile system.  Sure, a modern urban sewer system needs maintenance, but any one of a dozen different factors could make this building uninhabitable.  A truck drivers strike, a diesel fuel shortage, a road blockage, etc etc.  When there was a local annexation dispute with a casino that’s under construction, the developers threatened implementing this sort of system.  Thankfully they straightened it out before actually going through with it.  But it’s fascinating to see the challenges in such a system that was actually implemented.

    1. I’m not sure that strikes are a major issue in Dubai. It isn’t just their sewage system that is, shall we say, less-than-tastefully-retro…

      This falls hardest on the squalid southest asian quasi-slaves who do the grunt work; but I think there’ve been a few British and American expats whose ‘livin’ the high life in the real estate bubble, with servile darkies just like the good old days’ lifestyle was rudely interrupted by the fact that (while they do have a cowboy-capitalist finance and real estate sector) they have debtor’s prisons.

  2. I heard this yesterday, and it instantly occurred to me that this is the perfect illustration of the importance of public infrastructure.  Next time someone tries to pull a Tea Party argument against taxation and public works, ask them if they would prefer endless queues of poo-trucks.

    1. I suspect your fervent TPer would not mind as long as the tricks do not line up within line of sight of their front porch.

      1. Yeah, I know.  And just think how many people would be put to work in the poo-trucks!  And in poo-truck maintenance!  And poo-truck emptying!  Jobs would come down the pipeline in a mighty flow!

    2. Pff, that’s socialist.  The free market should decide whether that’s mud or shit floating in the river.

    3. Don’t confuse income tax which is a bad idea usually economically, but that many countries like the US has, with use tax.  I don’t think any society can survive without some sort of use tax on infrastructure. Many societies do just fine without income tax.  Americans pay very high taxes, even higher than the UK which the US revolted from.  You have strange logic and your political parties fail to see the irony.

      Oh yea, they don’t have income tax either in Dubai. It’s nicer than any US city in terms of infrastructure. Turns out this system of trucks is a lot cheaper than paying American income tax that gets wasted finding its way to the contractors building the sewer. I wouldn’t want to live there for a lot of other reasons though…

      1. Cheaper does not equal better.  I would not want to live in a place where I depend on trucks for hauling my poop away.  Sorry, that’s not a good system, and any place with that system is dysfunctional.  I would rather pay more taxes.

      2. Even using numbers from the Heritage Foundation, the US has a much lower tax rate than the UK.  Based on Heritage Foundation numbers (an indisputably conservative and anti-tax source) UK is #20 and US is #61.  Also the US has the most regressive tax system of any major industrial nation.  That means the poor pay a higher percentage of their income as tax than the rich in the US, were as it is the other way around in other major industrial nations.

      3. Firstly, “income tax is a bad idea usually economically”, this point could be argued endlessly, but I’ll put my opinion bluntly: bullshit. Taxes have to be collected somehow and income tax is the most equitable way to do it. Consumption taxes almost always  result in the poor paying a much higher percentage of their incomes on tax than the rich, income taxes (when not offset by tax-loopholes) have the opposite effect. 

        Secondly, for the vast majority taxes in the US are much cheaper than the UK. Taxes in the US in fact are pretty damn low compared to most industrialised countries.See: http://www.taxrates.cc/ for a pretty comprehensive review of taxes in different countries.Finally, it might be true that paying people to drive around in trucks is cheaper than installing sewerage systems in the short term, but its not likely to be cheaper in the long term, as it involves many continuous costs with a smaller start-up cost compared to a larger start-up cost and lower continuous costs. Secondly even if it is economically cheaper in the simplest sense of the word, there are other costs, the most obvious being the tailpipe emissions from the trucks.

    4. The poo trucks would still have to be paid for.

      I haven’t heard any Tea Partiers say to do away with infrastructure. That’s a straw man argument.  There are plenty of arguments against entitlement policies among school teachers, endless social spending and bailouts for banks.  In fact, I think the Occupussies are against bail outs for banks, too.  Or at least half of them are.  Apparently, half of them polled think bailouts are a good idea.

  3. Why am i getting the impression that this is symbolic of the “glitz before plumbing” attitude that seems to have been running rampant the last 30 or so years? Who cares if the internal workings of something is a mess and a half as long as it looks good on the outside, right? Just need to pawn it off to someone else and run for the border before they notice all the issues…

  4. Anytime the discussion as to which technologies you couldn’t live without and people are mentioning their cellular phone my wife always brings up “clean running water and sewage” but everyone always tells her that isn’t really “modern” technology.

    I’m willing to bet there are a lot of people in Dubai with cellphones and no flush toilet that would tell them how modern things really are.

  5. I’m as curious how you get the clean water up into the toilet in the first place in the tallest building in the world.    Do you have pumping stations every x number of floors to get it all into a big tank on the roof, which then lets the water down to the various floors, or what?

    1.  I’m guessing they just have a very large pump at the bottom of the building.  Pressure is pressure.  What I find even more interesting is how they get waste from the top floor to the bottom.  They actually can’t use a single pipe from the top of the building to the bottom or the crap  would gain a huge amount of velocity free falling and could crack a pipe at the bottom.  Instead they have to angle all of the pipe and use a zigzag pattern to keep the velocity under control.

    2. I asked around the office, we have a couple of people who have been to the building, they use a series of pumps and water containers on the infrastructure floors every 10 floors or so.  Pump from the ground to floor 10.  Pump from 10 to 20, etc.  These same tanks are also used for fire control.

      As the building narrows, water tanks also get smaller, as there is less floorspace requiring water.  But the net effect is that each system only needs to deal with about 10 floors at a time instead of pumping all the way to the top with a massive pump.

  6. Our decaying eastern US cities are nearly there. Here in Jersey City they have built a forest of towers on the waterfront but the primitive combined sewer system overflows turds into the long suffering Hudson River every time it rains.  There are still sewers mains here made of bricks or even wood, and the politicals have diverted the tax money away from infrastructure and into graft for a century. Its so corrupt even the Parking Authority that gives tickets runs in the red!

  7. This is what you get when you don’t have appropriate government spending on infrastucture. This, my friends, is why big countries, with big buildings, needs at least a somewhat big government.

  8. This is the funniest thing I’ve read this week.

    And what you do is when you bring in the world’s, you know, most sophisticated architects and engineers, you can literally build anything, including a building of 140 or 150 stories. But designing a municipal network of sewage treatment is in some ways more complex.

    It’s only “complex” in the sense that the people making the decisions have to put some value on it.

  9. People keeping saying “50 years ago none of this was here” as if that explains the lack of infrastructure. The thing is, that’s when it would have been easy (and reasonable) to build the infrastructure. One reason that older cities have lagging sanitation infrastructure is because it is harder to repair/update with a city on top of it. Even SimCity knows that without infrastructure your city will die pretty quickly. Unless and until these systems are put in place places like Dubai are just twiddling their thumbs waiting for it all to crash down around them.

  10. And how many of these trucks, not wanting to wait in line 24 hours surrounded by raw sewage, just go to a ditch, or find an unguarded bit of shoreline, and dump it. Quicker, cheaper, and less smelly.

  11. A sewage system isn’t any more complex than a 150-storey skyscraper at all, but noone around the world will OOH and AHH at ‘the world’s most efficient and fastest sewage system’!

    The real reason is because skyscrapers are EGO TRIPS, nothing more.  A Sewage system is one of those things that noone in charge cares about.

  12. Sewage infrastructure is not something that you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes.  And if you don’t understand, those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your poo in, it gets in line and it’s going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.

  13. I visited Dubai a few years ago and saw the trucks firsthand. There were miles and miles of them parked by the side of the road, waiting in line to dump their loads. There are also water trucks, some potable, some for construction going the other direction. Each type of truck was painted a different color.

  14. Are none of you on a septic system?  There are honey wagons all over rural America that pump out people’s septic tank every few years.  In a densely populated areas residential septic tanks, or the newer waste field systems,  become unsustainable.  But they are still common outside of urban areas.

    I’m actually kind of surprised the architects didn’t use some bio-recycling to fertilize window planters, or something like that.  But I suspect those things smell.  Long live the P-trap.

    1. Septic tanks are pretty much a standard feature of houses away from a town or village in many parts of the UK. A friend of mine owns a 17c former farmhouse that is now a hotel/restaurant near Castle Combe in Wiltshire. She has septic tanks as the nearest main road is a mile in one direction, and three in the other.

    2. Are none of you on a septic system? There are honey wagons all over rural America that pump out people’s septic tank every few years.

      I’ve owned two houses with septic tanks. A properly constructed and appropriately-sized system won’t need to be pumped for the first twenty or thirty years. After that, once a year is generally sufficient or it’s time to get a new tank. Many older tanks fail because they’re made of easily breakable materials and roots get into them.

      Some homeowners can’t or won’t replace a failing vital system, but pumping is a bug, not a feature, so it’s not a good comparison to a city with no built-in sewer structure.

  15. I live in a city not known for good urban planning, but sixty years ago they realized that there would be four million people living here.  They divided up large chunks of the county into water and sewer authorities and laid out plans for storm sewers and retention ponds decades in advance. Smart bunch of rednecks.

    I cant believe that Dubai could have missed this most obvious step in urban planning. 

  16. “And what you do is when you bring in the world’s, you know, most sophisticated architects and engineers, you can literally build anything, including a building of 140 or 150 stories. But designing a municipal network of sewage treatment is in some ways more complex.”

    I think that would be news to the Romans.

  17. The more I learn about Dubai, the more the whole place seems like something not so much planned as doodled in a 9-year-old boy’s school notebook.

  18. The world’s tallest skyscraper, but they couldn’t even be bothered to put in a city sewer system. Dubai truly is the epitome of “ghetto fabulous”.

  19. Pish.  When I was a lad, I had to walk through the snow to the outhouse.  Uphill both ways.

    Sadly, only the last part of that is made up.

  20. Designing and implementing a sewage system that can handle the amount of excreta that Dubai produces–and building it out in a city that was nowhere near as large as it is now, within the living memory of most people–may be a complex task, but it is a task that was and is completely foreseeable by anyone even remotely interested in urban planning. 

    The problem is that Dubai was and is a town that was built by and for people who were intent on making a quick buck in real estate, and contributing to a common infrastructure system that would cut into everyone’s profits doesn’t fit into that paradigm. The odds are that they can still get labor to physically haul the crap away that’s cheaper than trying to retrofit an adequate sewage system under and around the ridiculously-oversized skyscrapers, and the people who would end up picking up the tab for it aren’t invested long-term. (I suspect that “Woody Deck” above is one of them; these Dubai posts inevitably attract people who want you to believe that things are going great there, why not move there and see for yourself, maybe invest a little…)

  21. I’d say this problem is corrected within the next year or two. trucks are doing the job for now, and will be replaced with more permanent solutiosn soon as they can be addressed.

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