World Toilet Day: An opportunity to explore sanitation and urban resilience

If we take as a starting point that there is nothing glamorous about sanitation, then a lack of sanitation is nothing less than an alarming reality – one endured by many urban residents in an ongoing sanitation crisis that deserves further attention. One in three people globally do not have access to a safe, clean, private toilet, and nearly 2.5 billion people still lack access to improved sanitation. Sanitation or the lack thereof is a major cause of death and disease and a serious, if too often ignored, barrier to development and resilience building.

World Toilet Day, commemorated annually on November 19, is an opportunity to remind ourselves of a few facts and propose a set of guiding principles for a renewed and revitalized urban sanitation agenda.

For cities in the Global South, faced with changing climate and demographics as well as limited financial and human resources, managing human waste can become an uphill battle. The World Bank has estimated that poor sanitation costs India, for example, more than $53 billion a year – or over 6 percent of its gross domestic product. The costs elsewhere are less clearly defined: with an estimated 4.5 billion people living without safely managed sanitation and only 26% of urban excreta deemed to be safely managed, there is a real risk of dangerous pollution across neighbourhoods and bodies of water. The results? Environmental degradation, endemic disease leading to mortality, poor school attendance and performance, low productivity, and, ultimately, limits on economic growth and urban development. In short, a silent crisis.

The provision of toilets is a necessary first step in addressing the complex sanitation challenge, though we must transform our thinking to deploy both old and new solutions in smarter ways. We need to better understand how sanitation impacts the function and form of cities and how it supports economic development and promotes equity. Circling away from expensive, resource-heavy, decentralised sewage infrastructure, an urban resilience focus in the developing world will need to achieve the same results as in cities like New York or London, but in a much more cost-effective and innovative way.

100 Resilient Cities is working with cities and partners across the world to address resilience challenges caused by inadequate sanitation systems, environmental pollution, and resulting impacts on public health. We are helping cities to share good practices and jointly develop new solutions, with particular emphasis on informality and its resulting vulnerabilities to acute shocks and chronic stresses. The global sanitation crisis is not new, nor are the solutions unknown. Yet enduring solutions continue to elude decision-makers worldwide, and we are at risk of missing the Sustainable Development Goals’ targets for WASH. The time for investment and innovation is now. The World Bank has estimated that every dollar, pound, or euro spent on improving sanitation delivers a fivefold impact in social and economic benefits.

A true transformation in urban sanitation will require large-scale, city-wide solutions, and a holistic approach which successfully unites political priorities, financing, urban planning and design, management, and governance. The engagement of all stakeholders is required, not only for reasons of equity or in response to the human right to sanitation, but also because the consequences of inadequate sanitation eventually affect everyone across dense urban environments.

Sanitation, though not a glamorous subject, is nevertheless the key to healthier and more sustainable and resilient cities. On this World Toilet Day, we invite you to join our global conversation. Read on for reflections from resilience practitioners across the 100RC Network.

John Malueg and Babak Bozorgy, Resilience and Water Leads, Stantec

Capital funding can be a major barrier in planning and providing safe sanitation for communities, as can the expertise and resources needed to maintain and operate these systems. For many reasons, the most technologically advanced solution may not be the right solution for every community.

Stantec takes a holistic view of the challenges faced by cities and communities in addressing sanitation, resilience, and pollution. One approach is to look to nature for help. We strategically distribute wastewater treatment systems that optimize and take advantage of nature’s natural ability to treat and/or polish polluted water. This is one example of addressing the challenge effectively, simplistically, economically, and in a manner that complements the communities they serve – thereby also ensuring multiple benefits and maximising the project’s resilience dividend.

Cayley Green, Resilience Office, City of Cape Town, South Africa

Sanitation in the City of Cape Town is affected by the density of informal settlements, affecting the space available for and also the acceptance of new infrastructure. The city performs constant community engagement to mitigate risks associated with acceptance and unrest, including with local NGOs which can assist in relocating existing structures to allow for new infrastructure. Regular communication between City departments additionally ensures internal coordination around network upgrades. Success looks like the ablution facility in Masiphumelele, an informal settlement whose location in a wetland area makes sanitation provision very challenging. City of Cape Town architects designed this safe and sanitary solution, providing adequate toilets and showers for males and females and catering for the disabled, by modifying two vacant shipping containers.

From a resilience perspective, access to clean sanitation facilities means that people have dignity, are less likely to be exposed to sanitation-linked diseases, and are also less likely to be victims of crime. Adequate sanitation and improved wastewater management furthermore adds a layer of protection to the city’s river system and bodies of water – enabling our water systems to provide better climate adaptation and resilient place making services.

Rosalie Fidder, Intern for Resilient Cities, Arcadis

Arcadis has seen three major trends in recent work related to sanitation and wastewater treatment systems. First is the essential role of water systems in safekeeping public health in densely populated areas. To ensure that proper drainage and sanitation reduce the spreading of pathogens, an integrated systems thinking approach to the design and management of sanitation installations is critical. Another trend is recycling the waste in sewerage water and reusing valuable resources like phosphorus and nitrogen. Recycling wastewater can be done using a centralised approach, or alternatively decentralised on a district level which would benefit residents within each district. In places where construction of sewerage is underway, there is great opportunity to inject a resilience lens.

Finally, water treatment plants may have to prepare for a future in which they are tasked with also removing micro-plastics from polluted water. Plastics and waste dumped in a city’s river, for example, will reduce its water retention and drainage capacities – bringing environmental pollution, climate change, and waste management to a head. With an eye to a more resilient future, Arcadis is looking to build more integrated and multipurpose measures for the entire wastewater chain.

Arturo Dominici, Chief Resilience Officer of Panama City, Panama

Water supply and sanitation in Panama City is characterized by relatively high levels of access, however challenges remain. The urban sanitation system largely consists of old and dilapidated infrastructure with treatment facilities that do not treat the wastewater up to required standards, which results in poor water quality and environmental degradation having huge impact on the coastal areas and the beaches. Households in peri-urban areas still use septic tanks and latrines; the same applies to the informal settlements which make up nearly 40% of the metropolitan area. Informality creates a huge challenge to sanitation service provision and particularly the extension of sewerage. In addition, the city has to deal with an insufficient drainage system which is highly impacted by poor disposal of solid waste.

For many years the city has insufficiently been involved in sanitation service provision. The country’s Water Law places responsibility for water and sanitation services in urban areas with the Instituto de Acueductos y Alcantarillados Nacionales (IDAAN). Although the city is not the implementing actor for sanitation related projects, we realise that there is a huge opportunity to address sanitation deficiencies through our resilience building initiatives. An important intervention by the country’s Ministry of Health seeks to revive the environmental conditions of Panama City, urban rivers, and coastal areas of the Bay of Panama. Actions within Panamá Resiliente, our city’s Resilience Strategy, furthermore proposes a series of actions to be undertaken by city government. Although financial resources are still necessary, these have the potential to contribute to watershed recovery and sanitation and water quality improvement.

Dirk Schaefer, Programme Director, Water Sector Reform, Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH

Human waste must be managed in ways that safeguard the urban environment. Sewers require large, upfront capital investments and engender high per capita water consumption. In addition, they are costly to operate and maintain, require an affordable and reliable water supply, and therefore only benefit a small percentage of the population. Where this is not a feasible option, it is important to ensure that human waste is safely managed along the whole sanitation service chain; effective resource recovery and re-use are considered to create wider resilience benefits; and a diversity of technical solutions is embraced for adaptive, mixed and incremental approaches.

Offering scalable onsite sanitation solutions, GIZ has been implementing the Upscaling Basic Sanitation for the Urban Poor Programme (UBSUP) together with the Kenya Water Sector Trust Fund – a Kenyan state corporation mandated to finance water and sanitation infrastructure for the poor and under-served communities. The programme has demonstrated that success in increasing sanitation coverage is not limited to sewerage networks. A set of robust (and publicly available) tools have been developed to facilitate and guide implementation along the entire sanitation chain. All are aimed at ensuring acceptability, change of prioritization among key players, efficiency, affordability, and the subsequent sustainability of sanitation services and infrastructure.

Covering the entire sanitation service chain from the toilet to treatment of faecal sludge, the UBSUP approach is implemented through regulated public water utilities and is based on 3 key pillars: technology, social marketing, and business and financing. UBSUP is currently being implemented in 25 towns across the country, providing access to safe sanitation for more than 150,000 Kenyans. 13 decentralized septage and sludge treatment facilities (DTFs) and more than 14,000 toilets have been constructed so far. The principle of addressing the entire sanitation value chain and its anchorage to a sector institution that is protected by law makes UBSUP a truly unique programme.