The future of the sanitation economy: Perspectives on World Toilet Day

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Editor’s Note: this blog is adapted from the opening remarks by Maria Angelica Sotomayor, Practice Manager for the Africa Region with World Bank Water Global Practice, at the Sanitation Economy Summit in Pune, India. She also oversees the global sanitation agenda at the World Bank. 

World Toilet Day is a special day that should remind us all of the urgency and importance of the task ahead in our global commitment to achieving the sanitation SDG.

It should also serve as a reminder that, although we had 15 years to achieve the sanitation MDG, the world missed that target by almost 700 million people – in fact, sanitation was one of the most off-track MDGs.

Of course we are now in the era of the SDGs, which present us with the even greater challenge of providing safely managed sanitation for all along the whole sanitation service chain. This means that just building latrines will not be sufficient, especially since we have only 11 years left to achieve the SDG goal of universal safely managed sanitation.

This is a huge task. According to the latest JMP figures, in 2017 there were 4.1 billion people in the world without access to safely managed sanitation, 2 billion of whom were living without basic sanitation, and with over 670 million still practicing open defecation.

We know that business as usual in the sanitation sector will not allow us to reach the SDG targets.

So, we need a revolution in thinking and acting in order to tackle these great challenges – and the public and private sector must work together if we are to achieve the ambitious SDG goals.

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Maria Angelica Sotomayor
Maria Angelica Sotomayor at the Sanitation Economy Summit

 

I can’t think of a better place to spend World Toilet Day than in India, which should serve as an inspiration to all of us working in the sector, given the impressive advances the country has achieved in recent years in reducing open defecation under the national Swachh Bharat Mission. The World Bank is very proud to have partnered with the Government of India in this endeavor through the provision of 1.5 billion dollars of innovative, results-based financing in direct support of the Swachh Bharat program.

The World Bank has been an active partner of governments around the world in the sanitation sector for over 50 years, which has provided us with many important lessons from richer and poorer countries alike.

We realize that there is no silver bullet in our pursuit of providing safely managed sanitation services for all. We see that the provision of such services at scale is costly, it necessitates behavior change among all sector stakeholders, it requires strong political will, commitment and leadership from the very highest level of government down to the local community and the household, and it needs the engagement of both the public and private sectors. 

The benefits of tackling the challenges of sanitation are manifold: improved sanitation leads to lower disease burden, improved nutrition, reduced stunting,  increased attendance of girls at school, healthier living environments, improved quality of life, increased job opportunities and wages, the improved competitiveness of cities, as well as economic, environmental and social gains to society more broadly.

Recent analysis shows that ending open defecation can improve children’s lives by reducing disease transmission, stunting and under-nutrition, which are all important for childhood cognitive development and future economic productivity.  Without adequate sanitation facilities, girls are more likely to drop out of school and are vulnerable to attacks while seeking privacy.

Lack of sanitation also hinders economic growth, as it can cost some countries billions. This includes India, where poor sanitation can cost the equivalent of 6.4% of the country’s GDP.

In addition, properly managed sanitation is essential for protecting the environment, as it is crucial in our battle to clean up our rivers, lakes and seas.

High levels of both nitrogen and phosphorous are present in wastewater and fecal sludge, and are needed by the agriculture sector for use in fertilizers. However, they are mostly being dumped into water bodies rather than being recycled and kept on the land where farmers need them. For example, 85% of the world’s wastewater is currently discharged in untreated form into nature! Closing these resource loops would greatly help in the battle of the planetary boundaries.

So, although the sanitation SDG targets present us with huge challenges, they also provide us with great opportunities – opportunities which we can begin to realize when we start considering sanitation as a service to be delivered, and wastewater and fecal sludge as resources to be reused and not as wastes to be disposed of.

We see such a vision as a key pillar of the Sanitation Economy. And the exciting thing is that this is already happening! There are many great examples of job creation and economic growth associated with the delivery of safely managed sanitation services, and many other examples of closing the resource loop in the sector.

We see public and private service providers of all sizes - from mega utilities such as Sabesp in Brazil and Manila Water in the Philippines, to small formal or informal entrepreneurs at the local level, such as Container Bases Sanitation providers in Haiti and sludge emptiers in Uganda.

We also see impressive examples of reuse, from sophisticated tertiary treatment plants for converting wastewater into industrial-grade water in South Africa and as potable water in Namibia and Singapore, to the conversion of fecal sludge into compost and fuel briquettes in Bolivia and Kenya.

So, we shouldn’t focus only on the building of infrastructure, be it centralized or decentralized, sewers or onsite solutions, as this leaves out what I believe is the most important aspect of the sector, namely the sustainable delivery of sanitation services.

It is not just about the technology but also finding the right service delivery models, policies, funding, and regulatory and institutional frameworks, which are tailored to the local reality. This is particularly important in developing country cities, as their urban growth is dominated by disorganized, informal, rapidly growing settlements that challenge our ability to provide traditional services.

This means that we need to be flexible and creative. And we need to work with both the public and private sector, and with small, medium and large operators alike – but we need to do so at scale. 

A key part of the response will involve further leveraging of the private sector’s professional capacity and investment. By partnering with the private sector, we can tap into its capacity to innovate new affordable and aspirational products, provide service delivery for poorer households, strengthen distribution and supply chains, increase responsiveness to customer demand, and apply the best social and commercial marketing practices to change behavior, which is a particularly crucial consideration for sanitation. Private sector participation can also be tapped into for the efficient collection, conveyance, treatment and proper disposal and reuse of fecal sludge and wastewater.

Today, as we observe World Toilet Day, I invite you to take full advantage of this Summit in Pune to share your experiences and learn from that of others, so that we can leap frog the mistakes of the past and build on and scale-up the successes.

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