An Introduction to Shared Sanitation
How many people can share a toilet? This question might sound like the start of a joke but it’s actually a serious issue for many across the world. That’s because an estimated 20 percent of the global population do not have their own toilets.
In urban areas, almost one person in ten uses a shared household toilet, i.e., a toilet shared with at least one neighboring household. But sometimes no one in the neighborhood owns a private toilet, so some of these families instead have no choice but to use community toilets - that are locally available and used by anyone who lives nearby. In such cases, hundreds of people might be using the same block of community toilets. Now let’s think about the other toilets we all use – when we’re out shopping or running errands, when we’re at work or school, or when we’re in transit. These public toilets might be used by hundreds or thousands of different people at different times of day.
Many of us go through the day without giving much thought to this. But for hundreds of millions of people worldwide who do not own their own toilet, these are daily realities. Additionally, even for households who have their own toilet, when they are outside of the home, they still need access to improved sanitation facilities. The illustration below depicts a day in the life of the Mijini family (Mijini means urban in Swahili). The Mijini ’s sanitation situation is great in their home, as they have an individual household toilet, but it’s underwhelming and even dangerous once they leave home for their day. Their experience is not unique, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.
Access to safe, clean sanitation facilities throughout the day is important as safely managed sanitation helps protect both human health and the environment. Although there has been impressive progress in recent years, under Sustainable Development Goal 6.2, the challenge will only increase, as we work towards safely managed sanitation for all – which considers not only containment of waste at households, but also the safe conveyance, treatment and end use/disposal of the waste.
In practice, there are many barriers that prevent those aspirations being met. There may be challenging geographical terrains to navigate, or population density that presents insurmountable complexities for bringing in sanitation to– and allowing waste to be brought out from – individual households in the near term. Land tenure is a common challenge; as is whether residents or businesses/institutions own their buildings or rent them. While everyone agrees that the sanitation service chain needs to be complete in urban environments, how this is achieved in each location will vary. That’s because such processes depend on compromises between what’s technically, politically, and financially possible, and the views of households and potential consumers about what they need and want – a balance that should be struck through an inclusive engagement process.
Additionally, both anecdotal and empirical evidence suggest that most shared and public toilets fail within a few years of installation. For the most part they fail because of (often) predictable problems associated with ongoing operations and maintenance. That’s largely because, even though maintaining existing sanitation facilities attract less attention than announcing new builds or new initiatives, it is incredibly important. It’s much more cost-effective to fix existing facilities than build new ones. And maintenance matters because by its very nature it means working on things that are already being frequently used.
While individual household sanitation is both crucial and aspirational, it will be insufficient to meet the needs of growing urban populations in the coming years. And our sector’s predominant focus on individual sanitation, as seen by what gets prioritized in investment programs, and how ‘success’ gets counted – does a disservice to the millions of children, women and men living in urban areas, who will not be able to access a toilet at home in the short term and who spend much of their days away from their households, all too often without clean sanitation facilities they can safely use. And that’s no joke.
We’re also co-convening a session at the forthcoming SIWI World Water Week on Shared Sanitation: when individual toilets are not enough. Check back in September to learn more about the sessions and find out what new ideas the group generates for ensuring good operation and maintenance and increasing inclusivity of shared sanitation facilities.
To learn more about Shared Sanitation and what the World Bank is doing on this important topic, check out: