I spent last week at the 4th International Faecal Sludge Management Conference in Chennai, India. It was a packed week of presentations, workshops, meetings and networking with over 1000 people with an interest in addressing the challenges of global sanitation. I have slowly been processing the things that I heard, saw and learnt and I have summarised some of my most important points below.
First, sanitation incorporates the full service chain from capturing waste in toilets, containing it and transporting it to a treatment facility, treating and finally safely disposing or reusing the treated waste. Simply building toilets is not enough and more and more, people are focusing on multiple links within that service chain. This change in approach has taken time to find a foothold but now it is here, it is here to stay.
Taking the sanitation service chain into account, and then adding in the wide variety of sanitation options available to different sections of the population in a rapidly developing city gives an idea of the complexity of urban sanitation systems. They can include everything from sewage networks and septic tanks (which may or may not work) to pit latrines (which may or may be emptied) and open defecation. Complex problems rarely have simple solutions and a wide range of players need to be involved in providing sanitation for all. These diverse players include researchers, entrepreneurs, government officials, municipal workers, NGOs, engineers, social scientists, and policy advisors as well as people of different races, ages and genders. All of these people were represented at the conference and collaboration between them is the key to successful sanitation systems.
It is no surprise that many people have a preferred technology or approach. This could be the system they work most closely with or the approach that they perceive to have the greatest impact. However, in a complex system and with the huge variations between contexts in different countries and settings, there will never be a single best solution. The ‘perfect’ solution for one context could fail spectacularly in another context and in order to achieve sanitation for all, it will be necessary for a whole suite of solutions to work.
There is an increasing focus on “toilet resources” and turning waste into valuable by-products including fuel and fertiliser. Whilst it is great that the circular economy is being considered, the sector must not lose sight of the fact that sanitation is foremost an issue of human health and that by-products are of no value unless a viable market exists. To date, none of the social enterprises in the field of sanitation is self-sustaining and careful thought needs to go into the markets for by-products if they are to be a key component in the long-term success of sanitation businesses.
Like with many topics in the charitable and international development sector, achieving scale is a much-discussed goal in sanitation. Nevertheless, for all the people who talk about scale, few can define what scale looks like. Steve Sugden, from Water for People, suggested that scale is not an absolute number, but a characteristic of a system, which increasingly allows more to be achieved for less money. If scale is to be one of the key goals in the world of sanitation, and it should be, we need to improve our understanding of what scale means and how we get there.
As I mentioned above, sanitation is primarily a matter of human health and we need to focus on the biggest risks to human health first and ensure that we do not allow perfect to get in the way of good. Taking a risk-based approach to sanitation and making use of the tools available to understand where the biggest risks exist in the system allows us to achieve the biggest bang for our buck. These tools include shit flow diagrams (SFDs), sanitation safety plans (SSP) and quantitative microbial risk assessments (QMRAs) and it was refreshing to see them being adopted by an increasing number of actors in the field of sanitation.
The conference left me with plenty of new ideas and challenges to consider and several leads to follow up on. First, however, I think I need to catch up on some sleep…