It’s widely reported that most of the world’s population lives in urban areas. UN-Habitat estimates that 40% of urban dwellers live in slums, and that number is growing by more than 20 million people per year. Perhaps, less commonly reported is that while population is growing rapidly, urban sanitation coverage has only increased slightly.
While toilet access is generally higher in urban areas as compared to rural, sanitary conditions in urban areas are aggravated by high-density living, inadequate septage and solid waste management, and poor drainage. Recent analysis by WSP  concludes that to make any significant impact it is essential to adopt a multi-dimensional approach to this complex problem. Here are five reasons why urban sanitation is about more than building a toilet.
- Urban sanitation is about a chain of services: Densely-occupied urban areas do not have space to bury excreta, which contains harmful pathogens, or relocate toilets when they are full. Given this, it’s critical that fecal sludge is reliably and hygienically removed, taken elsewhere, treated, and preferably re-used. Failure at any step in this chain of services, from emptying, to transport, to treatment, has serious public health consequences, degrades the urban environment, and is inconvenient for residents. This is equally true for sewerage systems, where failures in both sewage transport and treatment services are common, despite huge sums spent on infrastructure.
- Urban sanitation must be poor-inclusive and implemented within a citywide framework: Poor excreta management in one household or community results in contamination that affects many other citizens in the densely populated urban space, so partial solutions will deliver only minimal public health, economic, social, and environmental benefits. To be cost effective, urban sanitation services must be planned to serve all those who need them – rich and poor alike.
- Urban sanitation cannot be tackled in isolation: Poor land-use control and drainage lead to flooding, especially in tropical climates, and flooding renders useless underground infrastructure like latrine pits, septic tanks and sewers, spreading fecal contamination far and wide. Defective solid waste management leads to blocked drainage systems, compounding flooding, and often increases the amount of solid waste disposed of in pit latrines, making them harder and more hazardous to empty.
- Urban sanitation requires a strong enabling environment: Clear policy frameworks, legislation, and standards help ensure coherence and consistency among stakeholders along the service chain. An effective institutional framework needs to involve competent private and public sector actors in the specific areas where they are most effective, backed by adequate financial arrangements, a mix of market-based systems for delivering the private good elements of the service chain, and public funding for the public goods further downstream.
- Urban sanitation needs clear accountability: A classic failure of urban sanitation development has been the delivery of infrastructure – from pit latrines, to drains, to sewers, to treatment plants – but without ensuring continuous and effective services. If the multiple service providers are to perform their essential roles, day in, day out, they must be held accountable through specific and effective accountability mechanisms.