Urban Sanitation: A Messy Problem for Habitat III

  • IMPACT Highlights

This article was originally written by Alberto Wilde and published by Global Communities here and by Medium here

As we approach Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador, one of the most essential topics that must be addressed in the New Urban Agenda is urban sanitation.

One in three people in the world lack access to a toilet. The traditional view is that lack of access to toilets is a problem in rural areas. But with rapid urbanization across the developing world, the number of people without access to proper sanitation who live in cities is growing rapidly. This serious urban problem presents a host of new challenges for cities looking to improve sanitation. Since 2011, with Global Communities, I have overseen a series of water and sanitation projects in both rural and urban Ghana. During that time, we’ve identified some of the biggest challenges of urban sanitation:

Lack of planning — In the wealthier neighborhoods of cities that were developed with proper urban planning, providing a toilet can be as simple and low cost as hooking it up to the existing sewer system. But rapid urban expansion in developing countries tends to be in slums which grow haphazardly, with little in the way of planning for the expansion of services, and often little taxation to pay for these services.

Lack of space — In the rural setting the biggest challenge for construction of latrines is finding affordable materials for construction. In an urban environment this is less of a problem as materials can be sourced fairly easily. Instead, the problem is a lack of space. Space, especially in crowded slums, comes at a premium.

Land titling — Most residents in urban settings do not own their land. Whether they are squatting or renting legally, they are not legally permitted to make improvements like adding a toilet, even if they wish to do so. Instead, it is up to the landlord to take the initiative and bear the cost, something that is rarely a priority, especially when they can increase their earnings by adding another room to rent as opposed to a bathroom.

Governance and enforcement — the Government of Ghana has a laudable policy that new homes must have a latrine. However, even when such laws are passed, enforcement can be difficult. Unscrupulous landlords may put a latrine into the architect’s plans but when construction takes place, the space changes function. It is essential that plans are checked both at the beginning and during construction to ensure laws are being followed.

Community consensus — In a rural setting, getting community buy-in for maintenance and usage of latrines can be a challenge. But there is usually a village chief or elder with whom you can engage to help convince other community members. This single point of contact provides extensive advantages in conducting community engagement. In urban settings, this becomes more complex: a variety of groups and interests interact, ranging from government officials, Members of Parliament and local organizations centered on a host of issues. These multi-stakeholder dynamics mean achieving consensus, and ultimately community enforcement, is more challenging.

Despite these challenges, there is much we can do to help expand sanitation in an urban environment. As part of the New Urban Agenda we should prioritize:

Better urban planning: We know that urban centers will continue to grow this century, and undoubtedly place more strain on local governance. But we have also seen a variety of ways, utilizing innovative planning methods that cities can adopt to respond to these issues. In the case of sanitation, they can help ensure that future growth, if not integrated to the sewage system at the time of construction, can be designed to be more easily be connected later. This will help drive down costs to make access to sanitation more equitable.

An integrated approach to urban growth: As well as passing laws requiring latrines, governments have to enforce them at each step. This requires income to pay for enforcement, which requires an integrated approach to urban issues, including street naming, addressing and taxation. Issues of water and sanitation should be built into every stage of urban development so that they are addressed alongside other urban challenges and not tacked on as an afterthought.

Subsidies: Governments, and the donors that support them, have to recognize that toilets are a public good that need to be subsidized. Most governments correctly understand the importance of subsidizing things like water and health care to help improve the health outcomes of its citizens. Promoting increased sanitation has been proven to prevent disease, and yet we rarely hear of a government subsidizing toilets. In addition, sanitation adds value to property and communities, ultimately creating prosperity. Providing subsidies, as well as investment in new technologies as opposed to more expensive open-pit latrines, can help drive down costs and make it financially feasible for more people to purchase or construct toilets.

Ultimately, what remains the same whether in urban or rural environments is the need for behavior change. We must continue investing in education and helping people understand the link between open defecation and disease, using community-led total sanitation or other approaches. Whether in an urban or rural environment, once people demand sanitation, governments and the market will be forced to provide it at competitive prices.