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The Straight Poop About the World's Tallest Building

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Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world and widely considered a symbol of Dubai's ambition and modernity, has some strikingly stone-aged inner workings. Perhaps it’s a nod to its humble fishing village roots, but this crowing jewel of the metropolitan Dubai skyline is actually not supported by a municipal sewage system.

This needle-shaped architectural marvel may be one of most explicit examples of the ‘beauty is only skin deep’ idiom. It may look pretty impressive on the outside but what lies beneath isn’t so much so. On all 160 occupied floors, the wastewater produced by the toilets and sinks doesn’t flow down a series of sewer pipes that lead directly to a septic system or municipal sewer -- the way a regular skyscraper waste system works.

Kate Ascher, author of The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper, explained the dirty truth to NPR’s Fresh Air host Terry Gross about what exactly happens when a toilet in the Burj Khalifa gets flushed.

While some of Dubai’s office buildings have access to a sewer system, “many of them [including the Burj Khalifa] actually use trucks to take the sewage out of individual buildings,” said Ascher “And then they wait on a queue to put it into a wastewater treatment plant.”

And how long do those trucks have to wait on line to remove the waste a half a mile in the sky from the Burj Khalifa? According to Ascher, sometimes up to 24 hours. Talk about being backed up.

After moving from a Bedouin desert community to a booming metropolis over the last half century, Dubai is finally attempting to catch its infrastructure up with its state-of-the-art surface. The city is investing in a municipal wastewater system for its tall buildings that should be up and running “at some point in the near future.”

In Dubai’s defense, Ascher says “...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 - certainly requires more money and more time to make it happen. So one just seemed to jump ahead of the other.”

Yes, I’d say leagues ahead.
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