Three challenges for urban sanitation: what I learned from housing professionals

5 min read
Image: WaterAid/GMB Akash/Panos

What can water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) specialists learn from architects and town planners? Rémi Kaupp, WaterAid UK’s Urban Sanitation Specialist, muses on three lessons from his time working in housing.

Before I joined WaterAid, I was working in housing organisations, mostly with architects and planners. Coming from the beautiful world of urban sanitation, I was a bit of an interloper, trying to talk about shit when colleagues were contemplating maps and designs. I was also humbled by what I learned from them.

One of WaterAid’s strategic objectives, and a buzzword in the WASH sector, is ‘Integration’, i.e. working with other sectors to reach our goals. However, it’s not always clear how we can achieve it.

To work effectively in urban areas, it is crucial to understand how cities evolve, which means getting into the complexities of housing and urban planning – not an easy world for engineers like me to crack into! 

Fortunately, I have been able to capture all of my previous colleagues’ wisdom in three short quotes, which I’ll share with you here. OK, maybe not all of their wisdom, but some food for thought for WASH people at least.

'We know, WASH is important, but in the end it’s just another bit of infrastructure.'

For architects and planners, and to paraphrase Turner, housing is not a noun, it’s a verb; housing people is about ensuring better living conditions, better settlements, better cities. Water and sanitation, although essential, are only a part of these living conditions; we know that WASH saves lives, but we need to maintain some humility.

Why is this important to me? Because it gives me two insights into how planners might think. Firstly, when building a town there’s a lot of urban infrastructure to deploy (water, sewerage, electricity, drainage, roads, etc), and you want to dig the ground only once if possible. Therefore we have to think in a way that integrates with other infrastructure components. Interestingly, this is often how slum residents’ associations (like communities that are part of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights) think too – given the opportunity and some finance, they undertake a range of improvements to their settlement, from drains to street paving and lighting. WASH would form part of these improvements, of course, but is not necessarily the main priority.

Secondly, and more importantly, it tells us what can get traction among municipal officials. As much as I enjoy topics like sludge treatment or toilet pit emptying, they don’t get planners or municipal decision makers excited, compared with more aspirational or visible pieces of infrastructure (let’s say, a bridge or a commercial development). The question for us is therefore how to make water and sanitation more aspirational – for instance using agendas and catchphrases such as ‘Clean cities’ or ‘Green cities’, and concepts like ‘Circular Economy’ or ‘Smart Cities’.

'Why use microfinance for sanitation? Just use housing finance!'

When working on sanitation microfinance, we had a hard time convincing lenders to provide loans for toilets; they couldn’t see the value in investing in something that wouldn’t improve the borrower’s income (like a business loan could), but also that couldn’t be repossessed easily in case of default (like a house could). But obtaining a loan can be a critical step towards improved sanitation for many families, as the excellent BRAC WASH programme has demonstrated. This offers two ways of thinking about a solution.

Firstly, my colleagues’ insight was that improving a toilet is just another home improvement for many residents – it is not done in isolation from other housing work (like, for example, repairing the roof or tiling the kitchen), but together with other upgrades. As sanitation marketing has shown, the main reason for investing in a toilet isn’t usually health but other aspirations, such as comfort, avoiding embarrassment when receiving visitors, security at night, etc – the same reasons for improving your home generally. The question is therefore how we recognise the varied aspirations people have, and how lenders who provide housing improvement loans can link these with toilet expertise and good sanitation services.

But the second idea goes the opposite way. Many households cannot invest in housing improvements, for instance because they do not own their land, but could invest in a toilet because sanitation is in some countries a basic right, seen as more ‘neutral’ than a house. The question is then how microfinance lenders can come to view the value of investing in toilets as they would in housing. Ideas like WaterSHED’s prefabricated ‘Toilet Shelter’ have potential not only to reduce the cost of a toilet, but to seduce lenders into solutions that are more easily deployable, especially where land tenure is an issue.

Speaking of tenure...

'Do you know how the poorest people get improved water and sanitation? By renting a place that has functional taps and toilets.'

We want to focus on the poorest and most marginalised, to ‘leave no one behind’. Most poor people rent their dwelling, in poor and rich countries alike; tenants do not usually have a say in the infrastructure available to them, and have to cope with whatever is available. Reaching the poorest therefore means improving houses. For this reason, when we focus narrowly on aspirations that residents have for improving their toilet, on microfinance options, or just generally on WASH infrastructure, we often miss out tenants entirely.

This isn’t easy to address, as it means working with both tenants and landlords (who are often just as poor), finding technical options that work for them (such as shared toilets) as well as financial packages, and avoiding large increases in rent that might result from improved WASH. A crucial question is: how can poor tenants have redress mechanisms against bad landlords – can there be meaningful accountability in informal urban settings?

Above all, it means working on housing regulations and enforcement, and not just water and sanitation policy – you can achieve significant WASH change for the poorest by working on housing policies, especially those relevant to tenants.

These were mostly provocations, and that’s how I treat them; not as complete truths, but as a way to escape the ‘WASH bubble’ and think creatively. They give me ways to ‘integrate’ with other urban actors: trying to keep some humility as we are only one of the forces shaping cities; understanding how residents’ aspirations and constraints drive investments; and delving into housing policies to truly reach everyone.

What provokes you to think outside the bubble on urban sanitation? Use the comments below!

Rémi Kaupp tweets as @RemKau