Recent thinking on urban sanitation – reporting from Stockholm World Water Week

5 min read

In a rapidly urbanising world, urban sanitation is an area where urgent action is needed. WaterAid co-convened two events at World Water Week to share recent research and experiences from different cities that have achieved success. Andrés Hueso, Senior Policy Analyst for Sanitation at WaterAid, reports.

“It has a stench that engulfs you as soon as you enter.” Suleman is talking about the public toilet he regularly uses. “We clearly see maggots in the pit.” Suleman, a 17-year-old mechanic, lives in a slum in Ghana. But his story resonates with the stories of the 700 million people in cities across the world without access to safe and private toilets - a figure that has been steadily growing by 8 million a year over the past decade as urban population growth has outpaced extension of sanitation services. Needless to say, providing sanitation services to cities – including all citizens irrespective of poverty, land ownership or recognised rights – is a pressing but complex challenge.

Fortunately, there are also many stories of success. Samira, also from Ghana, regularly uses a public toilet installed five years ago near the provision store she works in: “The facility is always clean and neat […and] has come to improve the insanitary conditions of the community.”

Recent 'must-reads'

In our recent research A tale of clean cities, we wanted to learn from such stories, so we went to three cities that have made good progress in delivering sanitation services for all their citizens: Kumasi in Ghana, Visakhapatnam in India, and San Fernando in the Philippines. I recently blogged about this research, and the synthesis report is available on our website.

We presented this research at Stockholm World Water Week, in two sessions organised by WaterAid, the German Development Agency GIZ, the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance, the UNDP-SIWI Water Governance Facility, and the World Bank's Water Global Practice.

There are also two other recent publications on urban sanitation about which the many event participants heard:

First, this very insightful and provocative critical questioning for city sanitation planning, in which the Institute for Sustainable Futures and SNV Netherlands Development Organisation analyse and challenge some of the underlying assumptions of the approaches used in planning sanitation at the city level.

Second, a very complete set of tools developed by the World Bank in order to support the diagnosis of cities’ faecal sludge management status and guide decision making in planning services, such as the emptying, conveyance, treatment and disposal of faecal sludge – a historically neglected but crucial part of urban sanitation. Both are recommended reading!

The audience in Stockholm also had the opportunity to learn from the experiences of nine different cities across the globe – you can have a taster of it through this interactive map.

They also had a snapshot of a few of the most common approaches to city sanitation planning, including Sanitation Safety PlanningSanitation 21City Sanitation Plans in IndiaCLUES and Options assessment in Vietnam. Another couple of approaches/tools were mentioned during the discussions, including the SaniPlan approach and the Shit Flow Diagrams, which were the subject of a dedicated meeting a few days earlier.

The changing urban sanitation sector

The number of initiatives and approaches mentioned above is a good indicator of the exciting times we are living in the urban sanitation sector. Urban sanitation, which has not been a big focus area in the past, now features heavily in all sector conferences, and there are even multi-day dedicated events. These events and other knowledge-sharing efforts are important, as more and more organisations start working in or increase their focus on urban sanitation. Ensuring new initiatives build on pre-existing knowledge (which is plentiful) and learn from other current efforts is critical.

At WaterAid – one of the many organisations intensifying its work in urban sanitation – we are making efforts to learn, catch up, collaborate with others and make sure we make a meaningful contribution. This inspired both the A tale of clean cities research and the events in Stockholm. On a more personal level, with my rather rural sanitation background, working on these has been an intense and thrilling learning process.

Key lessons

I have tried to articulate some of the key lessons I have learned from all these initiatives and discussions.

The first lesson is on the drivers of urban sanitation. To deliver city-wide sanitation services, ‘the three Ms’ need to be in place: 

Municipal champions; Method; and Money. Almost every successful city I hear or read about includes a committed Municipal champion; the presence of a mayor or government officer who makes sanitation their priority seems to emerge as a sine qua non for urban sanitation progress. Once the will is there, a Method to deliver is required, that is effective ways to plan, implement and sustain city-wide sanitation services. Money in sufficient quantity and quality (ensuring regular fund flow) is the final crucial link – and too often the bottleneck – that will enable getting and keeping those services up and running.

The second lesson or reflection is about the implications this has on the work of organisations active in the sector. Many organisations – WaterAid being an example – tend to focus a lot on the Method, developing sanitation planning approaches or implementing pilots to learn how to deliver sanitation. One frequent shortcoming within that work is a narrow perspective on developing technological solutions, at the expense of other key dimensions of service delivery. Another problem raised is that there is sometimes a bias towards ‘Western’, perfectionist approaches to planning, which often don’t speak to the more uncertain realities of cities in developing countries.

But the fact that we focus a lot on the Method and much less on Money and Municipal champions is another area of concern. Addressing financing constraints (which relate to complex decentralisation dynamics), linking sanitation planning to budgeting processes and nurturing sanitation champions seem to be out of the comfort zones of many organisations in the urban sanitation sector. Fortunately, several exciting initiatives exist on this front, such as the sanitation challenge in Ghana or the city cleanliness ranking in India, that tap into competition and peer pressure to motivate city authorities to prioritise sanitation.

At WaterAid, we are using these and other insights to improve and expand our engagement and work on urban sanitation.

Do these reflections resonate with your work or experience? Please share your thoughts using the comments below.

Andrés Hueso tweets as @andreshuesoWA