How to fill the non-sewered sanitation skills gap

The panel (from top left): Damir Brdjanovic, Sylvain Usher, Yu-Ling Cheng, Roshan Shrestha, Linda Strande and Suresh Kumar Rohilla

The Source asked a global panel of experts: ‘How can the water sector respond to the skills gap that must be filled if we are to make the most of opportunities presented by urban non-sewered sanitation?’


Professor Dr Damir Brdjanovic, Director, Global Sanitation Graduate School

The sector is in need of quality training and education, cooperation between academic and professional institutions, a recognised framework with assured quality, prestigious degrees and diplomas, platforms for alumni career development, and many other ingredients that will help people have healthier and productive lives.

In response to the growing need for leaders in developing countries and the implementation of non-sewered sanitation (NSS), the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education and partners – supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – have launched the Global Sanitation Learning Alliance, to help develop and disseminate knowledge on sanitation.

Recently, IHE Delft has started a new MSc in sanitation – a unique interdisciplinary programme with a focus on the delivery of NSS services to urban communities. It is designed for people from diverse backgrounds, acknowledging the complexity of urban sanitation.

We are currently in the process of transferring the programme to partner universities in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa as a part of the recently established Global Sanitation Graduate School. The goal is to train at least 1000 non-sewered sanitation professionals in the next couple of years. They will join a community of people who have completed courses offered by members of the Alliance, and will benefit from a customised IWA student membership programme, as well as membership of the IWA Specialist Group on NSS, chaired by Jay Bhagwan.

The School is being expanded to Brazil, Australia, Russia and China, with more countries expressing interest. A sizable scholarship fund to support participation is planned, and we will soon make available an online version of the courses that form the MSc in sanitation, as open access courseware at

With these exciting developments, I am confident we will reach the critical mass of highly skilled professionals to match the current and future needs of the sector.


Sylvain Usher, Executive Director, African Water Association

Human capital is the main pre-requirement for the development of society. The African water and sanitation sector – and, specifically, the sanitation component – has been facing the issue of poorly skilled staff for decades. Within the implementation framework of the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), filling the capacity gap has become a priority for urban non-sewered sanitation. Indeed, many experiences from development programmes have shown that no sustainable action is possible without skilled human resources to allow public and private key players to design, construct, operate and maintain facilities – even with enough funding and where political will is available.

So the skills gap should be filled through development of capacity building networks and practices to support continuing professional development. Sanitation operators’ partnerships (SOPs) are key, and the African Water Association has been developing these for years, as a peer to peer process in which utilities share their knowledge and expertise on technical or managerial issues. At the operator level, opportunities should be available for staff to follow long-term or short-term NSS studies, as well as on-demand job training to develop specific skills.

Today, we also need to look at scaling up, at the educational level, knowledge on non-sewered sanitation, building strong curricula and encouraging young students to engage in these for their university studies.

Institutional frameworks and policies for urban NSS are also key. As a public service, regulation needs to be developed for a better understanding of the relationships between the players – local authorities, emptiers, asset holding companies, central government and the population. However, the specific needs depend on the level of development of the country or urban area involved, so care must be taken to identify the exact requirements and to fill the gap accordingly.


Dr Yu-Ling Cheng, Distinguished Professor of Global Engineering, Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry, University of Toronto

There needs to be a shift away from thinking of sanitation as a water sector problem. Faecal sludge and sewer streams are solid excreta diluted in water – and, so, are a water problem. Many novel technologies for non-sewered sanitation treat solids and liquid streams separately. I think of sanitation as primarily a solids problem, as the solids stream contains the majority of pathogens and organic content.

It is clear that a much broader range of disciplinary expertise is needed than in the conventional water sector. Technologies being developed include dry oxidation, wet oxidation, electrochemical, and membrane-based processes; more are coming in future. To operate and maintain new technologies, technicians and operations engineers are needed in areas such as mechanical, electrical, chemical and controls engineering, as well as water engineering. We can look to related sectors, such as biomass incineration, to learn best practices for recruiting and training such staff. There will also be a need for people capable of understanding, evaluating and deciding on the choice of technologies for a given use.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, people who can further innovate in the non-sewered sanitation sector will be required. It is easy to train staff for an established industry; it is a challenge to train for a fast-moving innovation landscape.

In all innovative sectors, the ability to keep up and lead depends on our ability to learn and collaborate. As a university educator, the question of how to prepare students for a rapidly changing future has occupied my thinking for a long time. I always conclude that students need to have a strong foundation in the fundamentals of science and engineering, and to learn how to learn – so they can respond in an agile way to whatever the future may hold. I draw the same conclusion for the non-sewered sanitation sector.


Dr Roshan Shrestha, Lead, Urban Sanitation Market, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Water and sanitation sector stakeholders are finally understanding the need for innovation on sanitation, and have realised business as usual will not work. Governments and development banks have dramatically increased investment in non-sewered sanitation, including faecal sludge management (FSM). The government of India has planned FSM services in more than 500 cities over the next couple of years, while Bangladesh is aggressively moving forward to expand FSM services across urban centres by 2030, to achieve the SDG on sanitation. Demand for NSS and FSM is also increasing in sub-Saharan Africa.

The challenge is creating skills and expertise in this sector. We have limited numbers of sanitation professionals, who are not familiar with NSS and FSM, which are not the hard infrastructure usually considered in sewer-based projects. These programmes need the right policy and institutional framework, service, business models, and behaviour changes at all levels, so that the entire sanitation service chain can be addressed. We also need to consider inclusivity, so no-one is left behind.

City Wide Inclusive Sanitation (CWIS) is the approach we need to consider to address all these issues for safely managed sustainable sanitation services. The World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and African Development Bank recently committed around $2.5bn investment for CWIS – the first such development bank commitment in the sanitation sector.

I am optimistic, as many more tools, courses and knowledge products are emerging. Recently, IHE Delft launched the Global Sanitation Graduate School, in partnership with more than 20 universities. More than 30 universities from the Global South will start new courses on sanitation in the next two to three years. We will soon have a sizeable number of young professionals in this sector. I am also glad IWA recently established its Specialist Group on NSS – another milestone that will help to expand professional networks in NSS/FSM.


Dr Linda Strande, Sandec – Department of Sanitation, Water and Solid Waste for Development, Eawag – Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology

Faecal sludge management (FSM, non-sewered sanitation) is starting to be acknowledged and institutionalised, particularly in the past four or five years, when it has taken off more rapidly. Governments are recognising the need for FSM. Before solutions can be fully achieved, however, the process needs to continue moving forward.

FSM must be embedded into systems: governments must take responsibility; donor agencies must give funding; large intergovernmental organisations must promote FSM; and there must be public sector commitment. Development of institutions and capacity needs to take place in parallel. There has to be a multifaceted approach to capacity development that involves universities, professional engineers and practitioners, as well as governments.

Traditional sewerage solutions are taught at most educational institutions, but FSM is not well established. So a risk based approach is needed to address theoretical gaps. For example, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa, is working with the eThekwini municipality, testing technologies that may not yet be ready for full application at pilot scale.

We need to train more ‘public health engineers’. The goal of sanitary engineering is the safe removal of human waste from communities, while public health is a multidisciplinary science, with the goal of disease prevention through engagement and education of society and organisations. It is necessary to think beyond technology to long-term sustainable solutions, developing technologies while advocating the importance of FSM.

Change is occurring; more than 10,000 students have completed the Sandec online course Sanitation, Water and Solid Waste for Development, and IHE Delft’s new Master’s degree in NSS is to be replicated in other countries. There is still work to do, but there is momentum.


Dr Suresh Kumar Rohilla, Senior Director, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi

The NSS skills gap exists partly because universities and other institutions that are supposed to provide skilled professionals are geared towards sewered sanitation. Non-sewered sanitation is not a focus. In the Global North, there are opportunities to fill the gap by joining city departments and undertaking university courses or continuing professional development. These options do not exist in the Global South.

One issue with institutional capacity building is that there are no available institutions per se. In the city departments responsible for implementation on the ground, the human resources are not available – positions remain vacant.

Institutions in the North that specialise in the Global South or the developing world – and, in particular, sanitation issues – have been able to develop the capacities and skills of people from the North who want to work in the Global South. Even so, in the developing South, cities, the relevant parastatal organisations or water utilities often work through professional international consultants – and the context of the solutions they deliver may not always be suited to the context of the Global South.

An interim measure could be to train these consultants and develop their skills, and to train the trainers, such as university lecturers. If existing institutions do not have the vision and flexibility to accommodate this, there should be provision for staff skills development in departments, civic offices and water utilities.

As a career path, NSS has considerable potential because of the increased emphasis not only on the SDGs, but also on sustainability. As an institution, we have been capacity building for a decade. We work with multiple players – those planning and designing systems, and enablers such as the media and NGOs. NSS is not just an institutional issue – it also involves engaging with people and households.