Sanitation: time for a change of tactics

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A focus on conventional, centralised systems has failed to deliver adequate access to sanitation. Kala Vairavamoorthy makes the case for a change of tactics.

The United Nations Water Conference has been hailed as a landmark event. In many respects it was, being the first since 1977. But as I reflect on the commitments that were made back in March, I know that huge change must be made for progress to be delivered, and delivered fast.

The tactics of old, although well intentioned, have failed. This is not just a time for innovation, inspired funding models and climate savvy solutions – all of which are needed. More radically, it is time to change the narrative, time to fight to get sanitation to the top of the political agenda, and time to come to the stark realisation that sanitation is an issue for us all. We all have a stake in it, and this is something we forget at our peril – rich and poor alike.

Water may be the word that features in our Association’s name, but sanitation is an increasingly important part of IWA’s activities, and rightly so. This is highlighted by IWA’s first non-sewered sanitation conference held on 15-17 October in Johannesburg, South Africa, a country where the Water Research Commission is taking a lead in non-sewered sanitation and piloting a range of innovative approaches that could have global significance. The world’s leading thinkers on sanitation now see IWA as a place to invigorate progress and tackle the toughest of challenges head-on.

Moving beyond the hand-wringing

We in the water sector are unfortunately used to drawing attention to the huge shortfalls in access to sanitation. For example, there are still more than one billion people who live in informal settlements without regular access to piped water, sanitation, and other municipal services.

In the face of such numbers, we can and must reaffirm our strategic commitment to achieving universal sanitation as a prerequisite for human health, development, and resilience. We can also appreciate that undeniable progress is being made, expanding and improving access for billions worldwide.

At the same time, we should be able to honestly ask ourselves: why do so many of the most vulnerable, remote, and low-income families who still defecate in the open not only own a cell phone, but have a way to charge it? How does our progress look when compared with other sectors, such as telecoms and energy, which have proved themselves to be agile, able to work off-grid, and progress further and faster?

It is easy to dismiss this question as ‘comparing apples to oranges’. But that would be myopic. While safely managed sanitation is a fulcrum of life and death, there are fundamental tactics that have advanced these other infrastructure-dependent fields to places sanitation has not reached. Can we learn from them and apply the most useful tactics to our own, more vital, sector?

Mitigating and adapting to the ‘new normal’

Above all, the tactics driving telecoms and energy are climate resilient. By definition, mobile telephony liberates people from being fixed to one place, while photovoltaic panels and wind turbines provide distributed clean energy to rural deserts or urban settlements that fossil fuel grids do not reach. These new forms of infrastructure not only lower emissions per capita, but also empower vulnerable communities to absorb the extreme shocks that are already under way. Sanitation can draw on these tactical lessons. But, as I alluded to earlier, climate change is making sanitation everyone’s problem. Emerging economies are experiencing urban population growth at an exponential rate. Infrastructure has not kept pace with this growth. As peri-urban – unsewered – populations grow, so does the risk to the whole population, economically and socially, and in turn this risks the health of us all.

As climate change exacerbates flooding and human waste floods into cities, people will come to realise that sanitation isn’t a problem of the poor, a problem of the disenfranchised, a problem that the most affluent try not to see. It will be a problem that respects no boundaries, no systems of class, and prospects for financial security will be undermined.

So, how do we prevent this chaos? We change the narrative. Sanitation isn’t about the other; it’s about us. Supporting sanitation isn’t an act of charity or an act of altruism; it’s an act of self-preservation. As water professionals, we need to promote sanitation as an act of enlightened self-interest – a philosophy where one is aware that by serving the interests of others, we are serving ourselves.

And here we come to my call for greater politicisation of sanitation. To achieve this, it’s imperative that we acknowledge that it is the affluent – those who ultimately have the most to lose from sanitation-related turmoil – who possess the most influential voices in politics. These are the people who need to be motivated and prompted to take action with a sense of urgency.

Aridification, meanwhile, complicates the standard form of improved sanitation. In thirsty cities where access is already fragile, intermittent water supply and tenuous flush toilets linked to sewage treatment plants only intensify the impacts of poor waste transport and disposal. This confluence of factors could lead to cities becoming constipated. Facing this compounding climate stress of rising deluges punctuated by protracted drought, it is worth re-examining our traditional assumptions about whether, when and where waterborne approaches to sanitation are the most appropriate choice, and consider other options.

This brings us back to the tactical lesson from the communications and energy sectors of increasing decentralisation.

The decentralisation opportunity

For years, it was assumed that electricity – provided by large, centrally organised power plants – would never reach the informal settlements or rural villages that were home to the most vulnerable communities. Yet in many nations of the world, the notion that the federal government provides electricity and telecoms gave way to a new and more flexible understanding: that governments must simply ensure they are provided efficiently, equitably, and sustainably.

Federal agencies set a high bar, matching support for service provision, but allowing district, urban and community level authorities to decide how to manage delivery. So, a city would determine where cellular towers would be located or implement choice over sustainable energy solutions such as hydro, solar, wind, geothermal, or nuclear power generation.

Similarly, the water sector should approach decentralisation as a tactical opportunity to be nimble, frugal, and speedy. Traditional wastewater systems are heavy. They are slow to build, often requiring exhaustive planning and land approvals, making them prohibitively expensive in many contexts. All of this leads to long-term procrastination, rendering often the best intentions ineffective.

These systems that are highly dependent on infrastructure are also cumbersome. They lock in reliance for service delivery on a single large-scale scheme, which heightens the risk that these top-heavy systems, if built, could fail, with widespread and consequential impacts to all who rely on such a monolithic system.

The alternative tactic – to deploy decentralised sanitation – offers more climate resilience by distributing risks, diversifying technologies, and building redundancy into larger systems. This shift to decentralisation aligns with the evolution seen in telecoms and energy; it makes room for staged, modular systems, and facilitates incremental growth that can be delivered faster and more flexibly, enabling the sector to seize the opportunities offered by new technologies as they emerge. This more agile method of service delivery will put sanitation at the heart of the race to deliver climate resilient towns and cities.

Converting sanitation’s obligations into market opportunities

Another tactical lesson from the telecoms and energy sectors is competition. Both energy and communications were once – like water and sanitation – seen as ‘natural monopolies’. No longer. Today, thousands of photovoltaic panel installation companies compete with one another to provide better services to more segments of the economy. They also compete with other renewables, which in turn compete with fossil fuel providers.

There are now multiple options for the delivery of safe sanitation, with more emerging, and these can be tailored to the context of the community being served. Systems suited to informal settlements will be different from those of high-income households; but the outcome will be the same – safe, sustainable sanitation. And as we become more agnostic about which solutions we deploy, the widening of interoperable options will allow us to evolve towards services that are fit for purpose and finely attuned to local needs and objectives.

Again, resist the temptation to protest that, unlike sanitation – up to now considered simply a public good and noble necessity – these mobile and energy firms are private profit-seeking companies. Perhaps we can instead ask, under what conditions can sanitation provide incentives for entrepreneurial action? Can human waste be seen as an asset rather than a liability? Might excrement one day be transformed into a source of wealth? And if so, how should the benefits be divided?

Some parts of the world are answering these questions. They speak of humanure, which is a resource for enriching the soil and feeding non-edible crops. Phosphorus is recaptured from faeces and urine. Methane is collected from excrement. These technologies and service models are able to deliver resilient and competitive alternatives that are evolving fast.

Some rely on simply retrofitting existing plants and changing the processes.

There are also many new, decentralised examples around the world, taking hold in diverse contexts. A common theme is that these options deal with human waste – faeces and urine – from a local to household level. Technological innovation can accelerate the process by driving efficiencies, lowering barriers to entry, and increasing yields or returns on investment. Sanitation technology has become a driving force for both waste and any water used to transport it to be seen as viable resources for subsequent use and value generation. This also puts sanitation at the heart of local progress, applying circular economy principles and tapping into urban ambitions to embrace sustainability.

Enabling action and harnessing aspiration

One final tactical lesson about advances in resilient, decentralised energy and telephony sectors is that, while the federal government set standards, provided support, and enforced rules, agencies themselves did not directly compete with these emerging approaches. Rather, they were given space to flourish.

In other words, governments didn’t propose, like social engineers, to ensure every household had an electric Frigidaire and an iPhone, and go about purchasing those goods and installing them. Such a uniform, cookie-cutter approach would be prohibitively costly, technologically rigid, socially inappropriate and, ultimately, self-defeating. Rather, they set out goals and standards for electrification and cellular connectivity services to unfold. In remote villages, entrepreneurs were subsidised to purchase solar panels for recharging batteries. In more affluent suburbs, homes got loans to install rooftop solar panels, which were paid off over time. The service levels were differentiated and increased as required.

Action for universal access to sanitation can take a similar approach. There is little sense in governments mandating and then purchasing a single one-size-fits-all standard flush toilet for every home, then paying even more to install waterborne sewerage networks connected to a centralised treatment plant. That may be appropriate in some places, but not all. Central government simply can’t know the best technology or most fitting alternative for each district, community or home. But what it can know, mandate, and support financially, is the equitable enforcement and universal protection of human rights – with high standards for compliance – which allows decisions to be made locally.

The problem with typical, highly centralised wastewater systems is not just that they represent the oldest established technology, but that they rely on a top-down approach that dictates the what, when and how of decision-making. National and local authorities alike should rightly be held accountable for whether people have access to sanitation, but that doesn’t mean they have to monopolise the decision-making process. On the contrary, the key to unlocking the opportunity around resilient, decentralised, and competitive sanitation is to create an enabling framework – one that is agnostic in terms of which solution should or should not be used.

People are willing to pay for the hardware and services that give them the improvements they want. Service providers and entrepreneurs will respond to that aspiration. The new ‘rules of the game’ might set down standards or conditions. But these are just part of a new sanitation ‘ecosystem’ that opens the way for a much more fluid response to sanitation needs.

Urging action on the path to practical progress

More broadly, adequate sanitation should – and can – be at the heart of prosperous, sustainable, and resilient towns and cities. Sanitation, especially when progressed inclusively and set within a wider, comprehensive urban water agenda, can be a vital enabler, providing a focus for tangible action on climate resilience and adaptation. So, as climate impacts close in, and urban populations continue to swell, the time is right to connect human aspirations for a better quality of life with the growing technology and service options for providing sanitation. The time is right for all relevant policymakers – from the UN Secretary-General through to implementing agencies and the donor community – to make sanitation a real priority. With sanitation prioritised, the tactics set out above will allow us to break through barriers to progress.

Practitioners and regulators must be empowered to develop policies with aspiration that seize the zeitgeist and create a safe, sustainable, resourceful future for all. That means a future that does not try to replicate the traditional sanitation solutions adopted in developed countries, but solutions that are transformative and most suited to low- and middle-income countries; solutions that seize opportunities, improve economic prosperity, and protect health.

In this context, it is imperative that water and sanitation professionals play a key role in communicating the benefits of these hybrid solutions and ensuring that they meet end-user needs. IWA’s Specialist Groups are uniquely positioned to facilitate and contribute to this transformation.

To ignite this transformation, IWA will draw together a small think tank of leading experts in the field to act as a catalyst for change – to disrupt the status quo, provoking a reframing of sanitation towards this change of tactics. Ultimately, this endeavour will inform and propel a new and more effective sanitation agenda. Just like the communications and energy industries, we need our own ‘tech visionaries’ to step into the spotlight. Armed with this rethinking on typology and technology, we can confront the blocks to progress, communicating the vision of sanitation for all – to change the dialogue from protecting the poorest to delivering vibrant, resilient cities, and engaging entire communities to be a force for change. •