6 key challenges to achieving universal access to sanitation by 2030

A low-cost latrine in Karataka, India. Photo by: Asian Development Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

Sanitation was a poor performer in the last round of assessments of international development goals, falling well short of the Millennium Development Goal of reducing the proportion of the world’s population without access to basic sanitation by half. It missed that target by nearly 700 million people, more than double the population of America.

Now the development community is exploring ways to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen when it comes to the new Sustainable Development Goals, with their official target of bringing “access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all” and ending open defecation by 2030.

Latest figures reveal there is a long way to go. Currently 167 of 183 countries do not have universal coverage of sanitation facilities, according to 2015 statistics from the World Health Organization. That translates as 2.4 billion people without access to improved sanitation facilities and 946 million people without any facilities at all, according to U.N. figures.

However, the world has seen some progress. Over the last 15 years; according to the U.N., 68 percent of the global population in 2015 was using improved sanitation facilities compared to 59 percent in 2000.

On the eve of World Toilet Day, Devex spoke to four sanitation experts to get their insights on the major challenges ahead and what needs to change if universal sanitation for all is to become a reality. Here are six takeaways:

1. Sanitation is being crowded out by competing interests.

“Making a case for sanitation can be hard for governments because there are so many other competing priorities, people need to eat and send their kids to school, so paying a fee for sanitation can be challenging,” according to Susana Rojas Williams, Habitat for Humanity International’s director of international shelter initiatives.

Jesse Shapiro, water, sanitation and hygiene adviser at U.S.Agency for International Development, agreed and said it would take strong leadership from within developing countries, not international targets, to put sanitation at the top of the development agenda.

He pointed to India as a rare example of sanitation being a government priority, thanks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Clean India” campaign to provide new sanitary toilets to more than 60 million homes by 2019. “Without a sanitation champion like you see in India, it’s hard to see sanitation really transforming,” he said.  

But it’s not just politicians and officials who need to prioritize toilets, people are responsible too.  Williams pointed out that in many countries where sanitation indicators are lagging, more people have cellphones than toilets. “How do you change the image of sanitation to make it aspirational as opposed to just a public health issue? That is one of the biggest challenges I’ve seen,” she said.

2. The “business as usual” sanitation cycle needs to be broken.

The traditional approach to improving water and sanitation outcomes is not working, according to Elynn Walter, international advocacy expert and Iead on U.S. partnerships at IRC. She referred to the “traditional development cycle” whereby donors fund hardware which NGOs install, the results are measured and reported back and the cycle repeats. “Often what we end up with are broken handpumps and latrines that are full,” she said.

Until donors change the way they measure “success” and start looking at wider service delivery indicators, as opposed to focusing on the number of toilets built, sanitation interventions will be stuck in this ineffective “business as usual” cycle, Walter said.

3. Sustainability is key.

For Walter, it is vital to listen to what governments say they are struggling with, ask where they see capacity gaps and then work to fill those with aim of a comprehensive and far more sustainable outcome. These gaps could be in human resources, technical skills, assistance with proper costings, or finding the most appropriate technologies, she said.

“It’s imperative that government is in the lead, it’s not something which can be led externally,” she said.

This broader “systems approach” looks beyond the installation of hardware and then becomes far more sustainable in the long term. “You need to ensure there’s a system in place to cover all the different components of the sanitation ladder, for example, when the toilet breaks or the water is shut off, only by addressing all of those components do you have a sustainable service being delivered,” she said.

4. Business still needs to engage.

“Sanitation isn’t a big priority for businesses and that makes it hard to get their attention,” according to Louis Boorstin, managing director at the Osprey Foundation.

Businesses are focused on roads, railway lines, telecommunication and power infrastructure because it has a direct impact on their industry, he said.  

“If you want to get your product to market then you need transport,” he said, and while sanitation is undoubtedly important and some businesses try and make sure their employees have safe water and sanitation, it’s not a “priority” in the same way these other types of infrastructure are, he said.

5. The costs of sanitation are often unknown.

“Most people don’t know what sanitation actually costs,” Walter said, and this is a key part of the puzzle since how we finance the SDGs starts with “knowing how much sanitation for all would actually cost.”

The second piece of the puzzle is “figuring out where the funding is to fill those gaps,” she said.  This could mean increasing tariffs and taxes, or perhaps more upfront investment in capital expenditure is needed which could potentially come from multilateral and bilateral donors, according to Walter.  

Either way, accurately estimating the costs of sanitation and surveying current government spending trends are a crucial piece in achieving the SDGs.

“Is it a matter of unlocking finance in a country and prioritizing different projects, or is there simply no funding? A lot of people come to the conclusion there isn’t enough money but I don’t think that is always the case — often it’s about unlocking funding or reducing inefficiencies,” she said.

6. Information, evidence and advocacy needs to be better targeted.

Ensuring best practices and learning are shared, both among all involved parties and across regions and countries, is crucial to reaching the sanitation targets, according to Arijanto Istander, senior infrastructure technical adviser at AECOM.

“Whether it’s on technical or social issues, we need to make sure this knowledge gets shared and that we build stronger relationships in the region and promote ‘south-south cooperation,’” he said.

However, Walter warned about an information overload. She said development practitioners need to make sure the multitude of evidence being collected gets turned into digestible and useful advocacy materials which are then put into the hands of decision-makers.

“People collect massive amount of data and don’t use it for anything, while at the same time there are government departments where getting information is like pulling teeth,” she said. The IRC advocacy expert said it’s a case of thinking more carefully about “where, who and how to find that information and then figuring out it’s purpose before we start collecting even more.”

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About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.