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Fecal sludge management is the elephant in the room, but we have developed tools to help

Peter Hawkins's picture

Recently developed Fecal Sludge Management tools to help address this important, but often-ignored, urban sanitation issue.

A global challenge

In the rapidly expanding cities of the developing world, sanitation is of ever growing importance – more people mean more exposure to fecal pollution, and therefore a greater risk to public health.  The widely accepted solution, taught to sanitary engineers worldwide, is to flush human waste into sewers which take it to large, centralized treatment facilities. 

This requires expensive infrastructure, a plentiful water supply, skilled operators and a substantial and reliable stream of operating funds. This means that in most low- and middle-income country cities, the sewerage service is only available to a small and decreasing proportion of the population, as investments cannot keep up with the explosive urban growth.

Discharging fecal sludge in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania

In unplanned areas, which often comprise the greater part of the city, water supplies are frequently inadequate, and the high investment costs of sewerage cannot be justified because land use patterns are disorganized and rapidly changing, and housing may not be entirely legal.  As a result, while businesses and rich people who occupy formally planned areas may have access to government-funded sewerage systems, poor people in unplanned areas are left to fend for themselves, with little or no support.  They typically use non-networked sanitation, with excreta and wastewater discharging into a septic tank or pit, or directly into the environment.  When pits and tanks fill up, they are often emptied by informal, unhygienic and degrading manual methods, with the fecal sludge being buried or openly dumped.  The result is recurrent outbreaks of cholera and other enteric infections, which affect the whole city.

Given that universal sewerage is not feasible, it is critical to improve the effectiveness of non-networked sanitation options for the many, as a complement to sewerage access for the few.  This is recognized in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include the whole sanitation services chain, from the toilet, to excreta containment at the household – in a pit or tank or flushed into a sewer – to transport, treatment and disposal.

Fecal sludge management services

In many cities, the emptying, conveyance, treatment and disposal of fecal sludge has largely been left to unregulated private, informal service providers.  These fecal sludge management (FSM) services became a problem that is going unaddressed – "the elephant in the (urban sanitation) room".

To address this neglected but crucial part of urban sanitation, the World Bank has developed some tools to diagnose FSM status and to guide decision-making.  These tools don’t provide pre-defined solutions, as the many variables and stakeholders involved demand interventions specific to each city, and should be seen within the context of integrated urban water management (IUWM).  Our focus on FSM was simply to enable a more balanced and inclusive approach to urban sanitation, rather than concentrating only on sewerage.  We are now working to broaden the tools to address urban sanitation as a whole.

These tools can be accessed on the Water Topic Website of the World Bank now. We will be blogging more on the FSM study findings, results and next steps soon... stay tuned.


Submitted by Faiyaz Muhammed Pasha on

FSM is outdated. There are new technologies which the WB should recognize & support. We worked on this problem and had presented to the Government of Delhi, India, during 2007, when the Supreme Court of India had ticked off the Delhi Jal Board (the Government Agency, which takes care of the Water and sanitation aspects of the city) a Plan to distill nearly 600 MGD of sewage waters and release distilled waters into the River Yamuna which flows through the City. The Engineers of the Agency agreed with the plan but no action was taken. We had presented this method/plan to the World Bank during 2011 under the scheme "Carbon Partnership Facility' as one of the processes of controlling pollution to which the Bank had agreed, but nothing came out of that, because the Government of India, did not respond to the communications sent.

However, we have now improved upon the methods and designed the Toilet Machine which closes the entire defecation at the toilet level both private and public. What you get is dried powder in a disposal bag which is sent to compost manufacturing unit and distilled water which goes into the Water harvesting bore. With the supporting technologies which we have with us, it is now possible to build or convert entire cities, towns and villages sewage free. The process is extended to other Domestic waste waters as well. This should be able to bring sanitation a perfect 10 score. The World Bank should opt for this method in all of its future projects.

Submitted by vijay jagannathan on

Fascinating. Have you considered also capturing the methane, which now has considerable value as a GHG? If instead of focusing on individual toilets you considered designing a distributed collection system with methane capture for both fecal waste and kitchen wastes generated by communities it could be attractive for green financing.

We agree that these are most encouraging developments, and we hope to see more use of carbon financing and reuse of waste water and fecal sludge. We are closely watching and supporting such initiatives as they move from pilot development to implementation at scale. However, this will take time and a lot of money to develop for the vast numbers involved. In the meanwhile, around 800 million urban dwellers lack any form of toilet and an estimated 78% of fecal waste goes untreated, even if it is initially contained by a toilet. These numbers are increasing monthly, due to the high rate of urban migration into slums and informal settlements. Improved on-site sanitation and FSM constitute a flexible, immediate response whereby governments, working with partners, can affordably speed up the delivery of sanitation services for all and confront one of the major public health issues facing the world’s cities. As new technologies become available, they will find their place in the constantly changing mix of sanitation services.

Submitted by Kevin Tayler on

With regard to the Delhi initiative, it would be interesting to know what 'distillation' means in the context of wastewater treatment. Distillation is a specific type of process - one dictionary definition is 'purification of water by successive evaporation and condensation'. Is this really what was proposed or would another term be more appropriate? My other question relates to the 'toilet machine'. I would imagine that its operational costs would be fairly high. Has any assessment of costs and potential revenue been done?

Submitted by VINCENT MARK ABEDI on

Thank you very much i am interested in the FSM services, planning for inclusive city-wide sanitation services in the Nsawam-Adoagyiri Municipal Assembly in the Eastern Region of Ghana of which i see huge investment in that area.For collecting ,disposing ,site looking ,vacuum tank and installing of plant so i need your help very urgently as well to write a proposal for this project.
Kindly send me hard copy of this books and handouts through the address below.
Thank you.
Yours faithfully,
P.O.BOX 455

Submitted by Sandria Warne on

I am planning for FMS Service in my new house that is in Lakeland Florida. I found the blog very helpful, now i am hope i get the best septic tank services that can help me in installing the septic systems. Thank you for posting this blog. Keep Sharing!!

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