Who Owns the Land? The Challenges of Improving Sanitation Systems in Cities

Land rights – or the lack of them – are often fundamental when it comes to improving sanitation systems in cities. The lack of clarity over land ownership can be a real stumbling block when it comes to building new infrastructure – something Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) has experienced in a recent project in Antananarivo, Madagascar.

By Mevazara Fety Rakotoson, Program Officer, WSUP Madagascar & Madeleine Stottor, Communications officer, WSUP.

In May 2013, WSUP began a three-year project to construct a new decentralised wastewater treatment system (DEWATS) in the city. DEWATS are low maintenance, affordable wastewater treatment systems, typically built from locally sourced materials to keep costs low and designed to offer reliable, efficient wastewater treatment – reducing water pollution caused by waste from poorly managed toilets and ultimately improving the health of people in the area.

When the project began, all seemed as though it would run smoothly. The project was implemented by WSUP in partnership with the Commune Urbaine d’Antananarivo (CUA) and funded by Agence Francaise de Développement (through CARE) and UKaid. WSUP and CARE completed the planning and design of the facility and the CUA provided an area of land in Fokontany Anosibe Mandrangobato I, in the capital city of Antananarivo, for the project.

The site chosen, pictured below, lies close to people’s homes in Antananarivo. In the often rapidly constructed low-income areas of the world’s growing cities, land is at a premium and finding the space for sanitation solutions can be difficult. In this case, the area was previously wasteland, with the potential to be converted into something that could make a real difference to local communities.


The chosen site in Fokontany Anosibe Mandrangobato I, previously unused wasteland.

But, after site preparation had begun, an appeal was lodged by a resident claiming that they owned the land. In the rapidly growing peri-urban communities of Antananarivo, land ownership is often unclear and it is not uncommon for more than one person to claim ownership of a particular area. This appeal and the lack of clarity over land tenure inevitably delayed the project; extending the team’s original allocation of eight months for site preparation (including land regularisation) to 26 months.

Because of the delay, the brick and concrete biodigester design originally chosen by the CUA had to be abandoned, as it became clear that there would not be time to install that particular structure. WSUP needed to find a design that could be installed more quickly, to lessen the impact of the delay, without driving up the costs of the project.

WSUP has learned from similar sanitation programmes run by WSUP in countries such as Ghana and Zambia that the Sistema Biobolsa was a viable alternative. This system transforms waste into biogas and natural fertiliser – products that can potentially be sold by the community to help support their families and ensure the biodigester’s financial viability.

It took until September 2015 to obtain a decree declaring the chosen site as publicly owned following negotiations with the individual claimant, who was compensated following the decision to transfer the land to the commune. The Malagasy State was able to take possession of the area in April 2016; the land was demarcated and secured definitively in July that year, more than three years after the project was launched.

The installation process, October to December 2016.

Work on the site finally began in August 2016, with the Biobolsa materials being installed in November, and the biodigester became operational in January 2017. As of January 2017, 80 people are benefitting from pit-emptying services linked to the new system, which ultimately will serve 7,000 people each year.

For the WSUP Madagascar team and other similar organisations, the challenges of identifying suitable land for projects and negotiating the use of that land are typical in projects like this.

Low-income areas like this one in Antananarivo are the result of extensive, rapid urban growth, creating communities that lack fundamental resources and, often, the legal rights to the lands they live on. In these densely populated areas, it can be difficult to find space for new infrastructure, and to work out who the land belongs to – as well as who will be responsible for maintaining any new systems.

But as this project demonstrates, solutions can be found – solutions that are financially viable and sustainable in the long-term – if organisations can work closely with local communities and governments and remain flexible and open to new options.

The biodigester in use, January 2017.

The biodigester in use, January 2017.