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Cleaning Up with Small-Scale Sanitation

Julia Bucknall's picture

One of the most repulsive moments in cinematic history is the outhouse scene in the Oscar-winning films SlumdogMillionaire. The hero, Jamal, is trapped in an outhouse when his favorite celebrity lands nearby in a helicopter. The only way to see his hero is to jump into the excrement. Happily, he gets to see the star and get an autographed photo: nothing parts a crowd like a filth-covered child.

Perhaps the director included the scene for shock value. But it also highlights a health issue that is reality for 2.6 billion people: a lack of safe sanitation. Of this group, 1.4 billion defecate in the open. The implications reach far beyond offended noses and human dignity. Over 5,000 children die every day from diseases related to human waste, particularly diarrhea, which kills more children than malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis combined.

So what’s being done to address this? Traditionally, the development community has tackled sanitation issues through infrastructure projects, working directly with governments. But this often isn’t enough. Often, the problems exist in slums, some of which are technically illegal settlements. Building infrastructure is such places become a political issue.

But a new trend is emerging. Managing human waste provides opportunities for businesses, all the way down to the micro level. Even the outhouse in Slumdog Millionaire is a fee-based service (Jamal and his brother charge for it). But there are also opportunities in the manufacture of latrines, waste collection, and pit cleaning. This doesn’t just reduce the waste problem, it also provide income opportunities, and treats the poor as paying customers for a much-needed (and appreciated) service.

One example is the service of emptying latrine pits. When these pits fill up, people often have to defecate in the open. But with the right equipment, such as theNibbler or theGulper, latrine pits can quickly be emptied. The small businesses that provide the service then take the waste to a sewage treatment plant, or at least dispose of it in a safe place.

The Bank’s WaterandSanitationProgram (WSP) has taken this idea further by testingsanitationmarketingapproaches tocreatedemand and support thesupplyofaffordableproducts that are valuable to poor households as a way to rapidly reach this lower tier of the market.

Perhaps not every sanitation entrepreneur will end up as a millionaire, like Jamal in the film. But hopefully, more and more people will earn an income providing small-scale sanitation services, and reducing health risks at the same time.

Reading related to this trend:

Local Financing of Water Utilities : Challenges and Opportunities - the Case of Peru 

Public-Private Partnerships for Urban Water Utilities : A Review of Experiences in Developing Countries

Water, Electricity and the Poor : Who Benefits from Utility Subsidies?


The World Bank Water Site


Submitted by Daniel on
The problem of open defecation is one that needs to be dealt with and I think it takes more than just SMEs to make this work. The Nibbler and Gulper are appropriate to help at the household level. The scene in the Slum Dog Millionaire however seemed to show centrally located latrines serving tens of thousands of people in a single location. I have been thinking that for such cases, given the problem of legality, difficulties with construction and displacement what might be needed is a system where the latrines are installed in such a way that they feed directly into a tanker trucks that could be moved emptied several times a day. Cities or private individuals could buy say a dozen 30,000 liter tankers with maybe 3 tractors that would just make the rounds and empty these tankers at treatment plants, or even better combine the collection with large bio-digesters that would help with local energy provision and produce concentrated natural fertilizer that could be sold to farmers/gardeners. One would need to develop a logistical system that ensures that the latrines are always available and reasonably clean and the waste is systematically picked up and recycled. I could easily imagine a PPP with the company operating such a system generating revenues in part from a subsidy by the town, part payment by users, and in part from the sales and distribution of electricity and high value fertilizer. These systems work for pig farms in Denmark, Germany and Holland, I am not sure why this could not work in underserved large concentrated communities. You could even add an incentive, and have a yearly redistribution of proceeds to the participating communities based on the volume of waste collected, or maybe free electricity, whatever, one would have to think of the modalities.

Submitted by G S RADJOU on
I like what you are saying. there is not one way process. As long as the hygiene is under control. Some countries develop flushing toilets for conveniences (if you have a pôwerfull water industries, it is is finer than if the country lack of water resources_ Perhaps, they may use dry instead of wet sanitation products). Another example is Biogas chamber under the latrines. this is good way to transform humane waste into energy trensformation and saving of human faeces contains these sources of biogas that can turn on the light or power your cooker...)- Another exaples Fishes.Myself, I lived in Indonesia for a while in Sumatra, people in the communities are defacating in water ponds where the fishes make the cleaning. Nobody get sicked- Iam self as a foreigner in the country went well. Do all industries have to use water as the main raw materials. I am full of doubt with the assumption. I mean, as long as the hygiene process chain is under control. It could be defecating in whatsoever. We need flexible solutions and not creating these industries..

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