Pioneering the path to non-sewered sanitation

With IWA’s first conference on non-sewered sanitation taking place later this year, Jay Bhagwan, chair of the Specialist Group on this topic, highlights the opportunity for progress. 

Imagine the reality of a toilet that works off-grid. This is something that is indeed happening. Real strides are being made in South Africa to improve urban and rural sanitation, and interest in expanding this new offering is growing. 

Responding to the root cause 

It’s important to acknowledge that waterborne sewered solutions may not be realised for many of the poorest, especially in the developing world. This is largely because of cost limitations and issues of water availability, putting these factors at the heart of the sanitation crisis. It is a point that was highlighted to me when I experienced a week without a water supply. 

The solution to be found in Mofolo West, in Soweto, provides a great example of aspirational sanitation. The system works without running water, electricity or an expensive sewer network. The sanitation service that supports the hygiene requirements of the informal community of Mofolo West is a completely off-grid (or decentralised) closed loop system. 

This is an example that responds directly to the point made by the South African Water Research Commission’s (WRC’s) CEO Dr Jennifer Molwantwa, which I like to quote: “Where you were born should not determine the technology you get!” 

Supporting the sanitation transformation 

The system used in Mofolo West, Clear Enviroloo, safely treats human waste from a communal sanitation facility that serves approximately 100 informal dwellings. Using a closed loop system, it enables all effluent to be returned into the system for flushing, making it completely independent of a water supply or sewerage grid. 

This, and several other solutions, are initiatives delivered by WRC and its partners through the South African Sanitation Technology Enterprise Programme (SASTEP) initiative, driven by the motivation to bring dignified and improved sanitation to places where constraints to sewered solutions exist. 

Opening opportunities 

For too long, people in the developing world have been subjected to a binary technology paradigm of either latrine technology or a reticulated waterborne system, which is determined by where you live. The lack of aspirational sanitation solutions, especially non-sewered or off-grid solutions, has been the Achilles heel of progress in sanitation delivery and leaves the poorest out of the sanitation market.  

The new challenges of rapid urbanisation, coupled with the wicked consequences of climate variability, are prompting a new look at sanitation. WRC has responded to this through its Sanitation Transformation Initiative (SANITI), an acronym that plays on the word ‘sanity’ and aims to bring greater sustainability to the way we deliver services. This is in contrast to the ‘insanity’ of doing the same things repeatedly and expecting a different outcome. 

Together with national and international partners, we have catalysed research, development and innovation into off-grid/non-sewered toilets of the future, with the aim of transforming a more secure sanitation sector.  

Under the umbrella of SASTEP, which aims to stimulate an industrial pathway, we have also produced the necessary guidelines, standards and policy recommendations to support innovation entering a market that has traditionally been locked in, technically. This includes support for research that can demonstrate equivalent toilet experiences to those of full flush systems, which are cost-effective and deliver environmental benefits. In doing so, we will be able to rise to the challenge of providing a range of sanitation solutions that can meet the needs of populations living with changing circumstances. Equity and dignity can only be realised by stimulating sanitation research, innovation, and science towards a just future. 

Inclusive sanitation 

On the back of climate challenges and the associated problems this creates for water security, the non-sewered sanitation (NSS) pathway offers the sustainable route to a more equitable future. IWA has recognised this potential with its Inclusive Urban Sanitation initiative, the aim of which is to reshape the global agenda on urban sanitation. Supported by a dedicated campaign called SaniAction, the objective is to garner the support and collaborative drive required to secure progress. It responds to the need for an accelerated and inclusive approach to expanding coverage of safe sanitation services, with still too many people in towns and cities across the globe lacking access to safely managed sanitation. 

Marking World Toilet Day on the 19 November 2022, IWA’s Inclusive Urban Sanitation Programme Lead, Suresh Rohilla, said: “Achieving safe, inclusive sanitation service outcomes requires dynamic governance and public service systems that incentivise delivery of public good outcomes. This initiative is based on the premise of ensuring that sanitation is inclusive and encompasses resilience to climate change and adoption of circular economy principles – covering sanitation as an integral element of urban water sustainability.”  

IWA’s Specialist Group on NSS was formed specifically to respond to this call and to stimulate the urgent need to develop the next generation of off-grid, innovative and novel technological options for sanitation that consider water and energy resources, user preferences and variable user population, and can contribute to revenue generation through the beneficial use of waste products or by reducing operational and maintenance costs. 

On World Toilet Day in 2022, I penned an article on the opportunities of the future of NSS and the pathways to delivery. I wrote with great optimism, knowing of the strides that were being made in technological and industrial innovation. The approach of the first IWA NSS Conference, hosted by WRC along with several partners, is a clear signal that the sector is ready for a paradigm shift. 

Here again I would like to quote Dr Molwantwa, who says: “In South Africa… inequity in sanitation provision has, in a way, contributed to further marginalisation in the development pathway of a large part of the society. It is therefore a privilege for us in South Africa to host this pioneering event and knowledge platform. Not only will it unlock the potential of knowledge and solutions to deal with our challenges, but it will also allow us to share this knowledge with the rest of the global world. It is the time for this much needed disruption and communities are starting to demand better services. The timing is very opportunistic for us and the developing world in transitioning and leading this new paradigm towards meeting the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals].” 

As chair of the IWA NSS Specialist Group, I see this is an important milestone to set the revolution of the sanitation industry in motion. I urge you to join us in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the Emperor’s Palace from 15-18 October 2023. There we will showcase an exemplary programme on the important developments being made in science and innovation, industry and technology, and how this will progress the future of NSS. This is a much awaited gamechanger for the water and sanitation sector that could revolutionise how cities are planned and managed, supporting the global mission of delivering safe sanitation to all. • 

More information 

For more details on the 1st IWA Non-Sewered Sanitation Conference, see:

The author

Jayant (Jay) Bhagwan is the executive manager of the key strategic area of water use and waste management at the South African Water Research Commission, and is chair of IWA’s Specialist Group on Non-Sewered Sanitation