Loosening the blockages: how can the sanitation sector reach everyone by 2030?

3 min read
Image: WaterAid/Poulomi Basu

Andrés Hueso, WaterAid's Senior Policy Analyst – Sanitation, reflects on the changes needed in the sanitation sector to reach the Sustainable Development Goals ambition of universal access by 2030.

The ambition

In early August, government negotiators at the UN agreed on 'The 2030 agenda for sustainable development'. They put universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene at the heart of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This agreement, once endorsed by UN heads of state and governments in September, will bring new energy to the fight against extreme poverty, including the global sanitation crisis.

The sanitation target is one of the most off-track of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which finish this year. Progress has been slow – one in three people still lack improved sanitation. That is about 2,365,004,300 people. The poorest have been left behind, there are increasing concerns about sustainability, and rapidly increasing urbanisation promises to build a perfect storm (of sludge).

Business as usual is not an option – there needs to be a step change globally to ensure everybody has access to sanitation by 2030. But what does this ‘step change’ look like? What needs to change in the sanitation sector?

WaterAid consulted 18 international sanitation experts on these pressing questions, identifying the blockages that have hindered progress and the priorities for the future and this is what they had to say.

Dealing with the blockages

A critical blockage in the MDG period was the view of sanitation as a private issue and a taboo topic, leading to low political prioritisation. After all, most politicians would rather avoid being associated with toilets. This resulted in inadequate financing, a lack of capacity and weak institutional arrangements.

Sanitation programmes were implemented many times by NGOs independently of government systems, which frequently led to problems with long-term maintenance.

Many programmes focused on infrastructure, neglecting behaviour-change promotion or addressing it with blanket approaches. The habit of open defecation was therefore not adequately challenged and many new toilets remained unused.

Finally, existing programmes have also failed to reach the poorest people and urban sanitation services were entirely ‘off the radar'.

Olinoh, 10, stood smiling infront of the newly installed hygeinic toilet block, Ampanasana Public Primary school ,Miandrivazo, Madagascar, 2012.
KariOlinoh stands in front of the new toilets of her school in Miandrivazo, Madagascar.
Image: WaterAid/Anna Kari

Looking forward

However, global prioritisation of sanitation has recently increased drastically, and this could resolve the challenges faced to date.

Still, several knowledge gaps need to be filled. ‘Unknowns’ highlighted by the experts consulted relate to urban sanitation, behaviour change, working at scale, working cross-sector and reaching the poorest. But sanitation sector stakeholders also need to adopt a more open, inclusive and learning-oriented mindset, and be more collaborative.

On the road towards universal access, experts identified three top priorities: urban sanitation, ensuring government leadership and sector harmonisation, and getting the right monitoring mechanisms within the SDGs.

The detailed findings from the expert consultation are available in an eight page research summary, and will be presented at Stockholm World Water Week later this month, in a session called 'Transforming the sanitation sector for achieving universal access by 2030'.

Convened by WaterAid and the World Bank Global Water Practice, the session aims to engage practitioners and researchers in this discussion. It will include a panel discussion with sanitation experts from UNICEF and the Gates Foundation, as well as the Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation. If you are attending Stockholm Water Week, I hope you can join us on Wednesday and contribute to the discussion. If not, keep an eye on the World Water Week website for news after the event.

Andrés Hueso tweets as @andreshuesoWA