5 Reasons Why Just Building Toilets Won’t Improve Urban Sanitation


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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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.


Peter Hawkins

Senior Water & Sanitation Specialist

Join the Conversation

Job Ominyi
September 05, 2013

An excellent expositon of some of the inhibitors to successful sanitaion improvement interventions. An additional issue to examine is the involvement of the urban settler, especially the poor in planning and management of sanitation improvements. People should be educated to know that their sanitation behaviour/practices have multiplier effects and allowed the space to participate in determining solutions to sanitation problems and managing the sustained success of such solutions. For example, it is not enough to tell people that blocked drains cause flooding, but how the flooding can cause their toilets to overflow and such overflow cause a mirage of diseases. They should then be given a chance to contribute to deciding how the blocking of drains could be stopped.

raha solutions
April 07, 2018

This is good idea but when formalised like you have, it takes a long time to fully implement. Human beings have naturally learnt from experience and it may be enough for one to feel that floating faeces is unsightly. There is a level of understanding, where detailed discussion (that many of us had in science labs) cannot be internalised. It is because of these (levels of understanding) that there are rules and regulations, chiefs and police, corporal punishment...

Jacques Marchand
September 05, 2013

VERY INTERESTING ! I recall 40 years ago when I was a young Hydrogeologist and WatSan Projects such like financed by the WB were just " TOP - DOWN " imposed without consulting the local people....!
Couple of years later the results were just " MUSEUM OF HYDRAULIC " !
Then came the switch from WatSan to SANWAT when people realised " WATER " was just one of the tools to reach better HEALTH !
It is alos worth recording here the ream meaning of the SCIENCE HYGIENE = The science that deals with the promotion and preservation of health. HYGIENE is also called HYGIENICS and it is a SCIENCE just like chemistry, mathematic or Physic....!
Best luck to all
Jacques Marchand

Danny Choba
September 06, 2013

I agree entirely with your five points

David Crosweller
September 07, 2013

This is just what we are doing!

Jacques Marchand
September 07, 2013

Dear All,
MERCI BEAUCOUP you for your different comment.
Unless I am wrong ??? I recall that in the Millennium Development Goals the word WATER does not appear but indeed yes the words " BETTER HEALTH " !
During the last 40 years slowly people realized that " WATER " is just one of the tools to reach a " BETTER HEALTH "
Also during my career I had the chance to have in my Teams for " WATER PROJECTS " medical Doctors.They opened my eyes.. on WATER PROJECTS !
When you have children dying in your arms due to water related problems ( Bilharziasis,.... ! ) you have a completely different approach to WATER PROJECTS and not anymore just an ENGINEERING or ECONOMIST APPROACH ... ! "
Although I am an hydrogeologist by background I believe that the PHAST approaches can do a lot to reach BETTER HEALTH and sense of ownership !
Best luck to all of you
Jacques Marchand

Sara f Azfar
September 07, 2013

Would have liked to have seen a point dedicated to o&m