Cleaning Up with Small-Scale Sanitation

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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


Julia Bucknall

Director for Environment and Natural Resources

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