Designing a Citywide Approach to Sanitation Improvements

Editors Note: In this post, Sam Drabble, Research and Evaluation Manager at Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), discusses some best practices for those looking to improve sanitation on a citywide level.


A waste collector from Clean Team doing his rounds in Kumasi, Ghana. Photo Credit: WSUP

The concept of improving sanitation on a citywide basis, rather than looking at individual communities or projects, is gaining increasing traction in the WASH sector.

World Water Week in Stockholm, in late August, was a clear example. In a specific session on citywide sanitation, Guy Norman from WSUP spoke about our experiences in Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city. The session drew upon a sector review, led by WaterAid, which has documented successes in Kumasi, as well as Vizag (India), another city where WSUP is playing a key role.

Citywide sanitation is undoubtedly a complex approach, but essential if we are to reach scale in urban contexts. It requires coordination between the many organisations engaged in service provision—local government, regulators, NGOs, donors—and in some cases, the development of a citywide sanitation plan that sets out a roadmap for future service provision and investment.

Here are five insights for those who are attempting to implement citywide sanitation improvements, based on our experiences:

Understand the city before designing the solutions

We say it often, but it can never be said enough: there is no one-size-fits-all solution to urban sanitation! Our experience underlines that every city—and in many cases, individual low-income communities—have their own set of conditions.

Kumasi is a case in point. The sanitation landscape in Kumasi has three interesting features: 1) an unusually high number of pay-per-use public toilets (the leading form of sanitation in urban Ghana, with around 700,000 people using one in Kumasi each day); a high proportion of compound housing in low-income communities, where tenants will often share a living space with more than 20 other people; and 3) the existence of a bylaw, longstanding but not properly enforced, which requires compound landlords to provide an in-house toilet for their tenants.

Our support to Kumasi Metropolitan Assembly (KMA), predominantly funded by USAID and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, evolved as a response to these features. Since 2011 we have worked with KMA to improve the standard of public toilets in Kumasi. This is an interim solution, but a pragmatic one, given these toilets already proliferate throughout the city.

By improving the standard of service, we improve the level of sanitation until the longer term solution gains traction: a five year compound sanitation strategy, targeted at landlords and centred around improve mediation and enforcement of existing bylaws.

Other ongoing activities in Kumasi include continuing to invest in Clean Team, a containerised toilet business that we established in 2013; and strengthening the back end of the sanitation chain by training tanker operators and rehabilitating the sludge dumping site at Dompoase.

Adopt a step-by-step approach

When we imagine a citywide sanitation programme being implemented, we might picture a range of activities being rolled out simultaneously across the city. In reality, as with so much in life, we come unstuck if we try to do too much at once. The task of achieving citwide sanitation coverage is massively daunting, but becomes more manageable if we break it down.

This is how Greater Vizag Municipal Corporation (GVMC), with WSUP’s support, decided to tackle the challenge of achieving open defecation free (ODF) status across the 78 wards that form the city. GVMC’s ongoing ‘ward by ward’ approach began by mapping open defecation levels in every ward to establish the baseline situation.

Those wards with low levels of open defecation (OD) were targeted first to achieve ODF status relatively quickly: this set an example for other wards by demonstrating that ODF status is attainable, and helped to build momentum as the focus moved to areas of the city with progressively higher levels of OD. These latter wards required more time for implementation, reflected in the staggered implementation timeline: one month was allocated to achieve ODF status for 20 of the initial wards and two months for the next group of 28 wards.

Sanitation planning is about the process, not the final document

In a session at World Water Week, Arne Panesar from GIZ emphasised that city sanitation plans should be seen as primarily about a process, not the production of a document. This resonated with our experience: in some cases, a lot of time and resources go into producing a document that sits on the shelf.

However, the process—creating a dialogue between the key institutions, mapping the current sanitation status of the city, and identifying the gaps and bottlenecks in service provision and how these could be addressed—is of enormous value in itself, above all because it engages the institutions who are ultimately responsible for providing the services.

Faecal sludge management (FSM) service provision needs to be made more systematic

One area where we believe citywide sanitation plans do have huge value to add is in promoting the systematic provision of FSM services. As discussed in Stockholm, a problem at the moment is a lack of good tools for estimating the costs of different citywide approaches (sewerage, FSM, or combined sewerage and FSM).

A particular problem is that FSM systems—transfer stations, trucking systems, etc.—tend to just randomly develop; if FSM systems were designed by engineers in the same way that sewerage systems are, they’d presumably be cheaper and more effective. We think the question of how to develop systematic FSM services that cover the full sanitation chain—and how these can be better integrated in citywide sanitation plans —is potentially an interesting area for future research.

There is more to stopping faecal contamination than providing improved toilets

At World Water Week, we were struck by some emerging findings from the Sanipath research team at Emory University, who are analysing faecal contamination pathways in Maputo (this work is linked to the USAID-funded MapSan evaluation of our Japan Social Development Fund-backed communal sanitation programme).

Sanipath’s early analysis of results suggests that a very important source of faecal contamination is salad vegetables produced in the environs of Maputo. This is very relevant for us: it suggests that even if we were able to provide perfect toilets in Maputo’s low-income communities (and convince people to wash their hands after each use), people might still get disease from lettuce and tomatoes because untreated waste is being used for crop irrigation elsewhere.

This final insight acts as a reminder that city sanitation is extremely complicated: the more evidence we have about what is really going on, both in the communities where we work and across the city as a whole, the better.