Published on The Water Blog

It’s not all about toilets: Debunking 7 myths about urban sanitation on World Water Day

This page in:
Read the World Water Day Blog Series


The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – Jan Willem Rosenboom
The University of Leeds – Barbara Evans
Emory University – Christine Moe & Eduardo Perez
WaterAid – Andrés Hueso
Plan International – Darren Saywell

Today, on World Water Day, which this year is dedicated to wastewater, we’d like to seize the occasion to debunk some of the myths that prevent sector experts and city managers all over the world from implementing effective urban sanitation solutions:

Myth #1: People don’t demand improvements in sanitation where it is deficient or absent

In fact: There is latent demand for sanitation services even in the poorest areas.  What is sometimes true however is that low income residents often feel unable to affect change, especially when facing uninterested politicians, land tenure limitations, and technical challenges, and they are reluctant to openly express their demands. [1] 

Myth #2: Poor people are not willing to pay for sanitation services

In fact: Poor people are willing to pay for sanitation services, and they do, even when they receive sub-standard services.  Often, their only option is to resort to an unregulated private service to periodically empty their latrine/septic tank, whereas richer areas are connected to sewer systems with subsidized or free services.

Myth #3: There isn’t enough money to solve the urban sanitation problem

In fact: There are available resources but they need to be better allocated and used more efficiently. Investments needs are huge — 40% of estimated funds needed to extend universal access to safely managed water, sanitation and hygiene are needed for urban sanitation. In addition to increasing public budgets, which will be necessary but not sufficient, service providers and households need to be supported to make efficient investment decisions. Private financing can be leveraged for investment opportunities, especially if public funds are used more strategically.

Myth #4: Investing in urban sanitation is not productive

In fact: Sanitation investments provide demonstrated health, economic, social and environmental benefits that are essential to turn cities into vibrant economic centers. Globally, inadequate sanitation costs poor countries on average 5% of their GDP. [2] The economic return on sanitation spending is estimated at US$5.5 for every dollar invested.  [3]

Myth #5: Centralized conventional sewers and wastewater treatment are the only way to solve the urban sanitation crisis

In fact: Experience of citywide inclusive sanitation in numerous cities (be it from Brasilia, Dakar, Durban, Manila, Kuala Lumpur or Seattle) mixing onsite collection and fecal sludge treatment solutions and sewerage solutions show important progress. Adaptive, expandable, decentralized and cost-effective approaches, mixing onsite collection and treatment and sewerage solutions, can be resilient to external economic, demographic and environmental shocks. Local innovation allows for sanitation solutions that reflect local conditions and meet customer needs.

Myth #6: Solving urban sanitation is all about toilets

In fact: Providing access to a toilet, a latrine or a sewer connection is only part of the solution.  The SDGs now require that human waste is conveyed, treated and reused/disposed of safely and sustainably. The full sanitation service chain needs to be sustainably managed.

Myth #7: Sanitation produces waste that is a nuisance to be eliminated

In fact: Human waste contains valuable nutrients. These can be recovered and reused as soil conditioner or fertilizer. Energy can be produced from both heat recovery and biogas combustion. Water can be recycled for industrial, agricultural and even potable use.  Such underutilized value, when monetized, can generate revenue to offset service costs.

In summary, there is no silver bullet; no simple, single solution to urban sanitation challenges. We must develop locally relevant and innovative solutions along the sanitation service chain that put customers first and focus as much on service management as on technology. City planners and other sector decision makers should consider the tradeoffs along the service chain between, for example, providing basic access to a toilet to all versus providing sewers and advanced wastewater treatment to the few.
Debunking these myths is part of our effort to help sanitation sector professionals in transforming their thinking and practices to deploy both old and new solutions in smarter ways to achieve sustainable, equitable and safe management of excreta for a whole city.
We’ll be issuing a Call to Action in April with a growing consortium of institutions to mobilize all stakeholders to radically shift their practices in order to achieve citywide inclusive sanitation .
Join us as we commit to this challenging yet critical goal!
[1] WaterAid. 2016. Overflowing cities: The State of the World's Toilets 2016. Media Briefing.
[2] Water and Sanitation Program. 2016. Economics of Sanitation Initiative.
[3] Hutton, G. 2012. Global costs and benefits of drinking-water supply and sanitation interventions to reach the MDG target and universal coverage. World Health Organization.


Martin Gambrill

Lead Water and Sanitation Specialist

Sophie Trémolet

Senior Economist, Water Global Practice, the World Bank

Valerie Florence Sturm

Environmental Engineer, The World Bank Water Global Practice

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000