A tale of clean cities: How to solve the urban sanitation challenge

Ashwini and her nieces stand outside their low-cost toilet built under the Karnataka Urban Development and Coastal Environmental Management Project in India. How can sanitation challenges posed by rapid urbanization be tackled globally? Photo by: Asian Development Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

Over half of the world’s population now live in urban areas, and that figure is set to continue rapidly rising. By 2050, it’s estimated that more than two thirds of people will be living in cities. Most of these additional people will live in unplanned settlements or slums without adequate basic services, such as access to clean water and toilets.

A staggering 800 million people in urban areas don’t have access to safe and private toilets; 100 million of whom have to practice open defecation. This poses extreme health risks, including frequent cholera outbreaks. Providing urban sanitation services to the whole city, including those who are very poor and often have no ownership of their land and few if any legal rights, is a complex challenge, but a vital one.

Urban insights from India, Ghana and the Philippines

Here are three success stories that provide useful lessons in how governments, donors and development agencies can work together to tackle the urban sanitation challenge and ensure universal access to water and sanitation.

In Visakhapatnam, India, the desire to transform the once small fishing village into the financial capital of the state of Andhra Pradesh inspired political buy-in, driving investments in sewers and the treatment and reuse of wastewater. Sanitation efforts recently received a significant boost from the launch of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission, which is helping extend coverage to poor households and focused attention on fecal sludge management. In a country where 2 in 5 urban dwellers lack access to improved sanitation, Visakhapatnam is a shining example and has been declared the third cleanest city in the country.

In Kumasi, Ghana, it was the demand from traders, transient workers, and migrants for proper sanitation services that led the city to invest in pay-per-use public toilets. This has helped reduce open defecation to three percent, 15 times less than the country’s capital city Accra, which has experienced cholera outbreaks. The city has emerged as a sanitation pioneer in West Africa.

In San Fernando, La Union, Philippines, strong leadership from the mayor led to the city rolling out environment-friendly strategies where sanitation was a central component, even introducing a sanitation tax. Legislation and public awareness campaigns have also been key ingredients of success.

Strong local leadership key to effecting change

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to ensuring sustainable sanitation services, the three cities studied show the vital role of strong local leadership. This could be from the mayor or the head of the waste management department. Support from development partners and nongovernmental organizations to these local champions was important, as it enabled them to explore innovative solutions to deliver sanitation in difficult to reach areas and slums.

Another common motivation across the three cities was the aspiration to become a clean city and a competitive drive to perform better than other cities in the national sanitation rankings.

Although rapid urbanization poses huge challenges, the pressure it causes can also trigger change, driving demand for services to be provided. The same happens with crises, such as outbreaks of disease. This resonates with the history of sanitation in London, where cholera outbreaks and the terrible stench of the Thames flowing outside the Houses of Parliament triggered political action that led to the development of an effective sewage system some 150 years ago.

WaterAid’s research also explored the role of city sanitation planning, which some donors now consider a condition before financially supporting cities. The research shows that plans are rarely put into practice to the letter, often because they are not accompanied by financing opportunities or aligned with budgeting processes.

Urban poor must be prioritized

However, the process of developing plans still proves useful as a way to improve collaboration among departments, raise awareness and create a shared vision of where the city wants to be in the future. To be effective, planning must be adapted to the specific context and phase of sanitation development, be linked to financing opportunities and become a continual learning process.

Although these cities are all success stories in their own way, findings showed uneven progress along the different parts of the sanitation chain. For example, there was a bias toward connecting wealthier neighborhoods to sewers and not providing those who relied on pit latrines with adequate support services, such as pit-emptying, meaning untreated waste would end up back in the environment.

Another worrying shortfall identified is that the needs of the urban poor were rarely a top priority, and were often overlooked. Unless all city dwellers have adequate sanitation services, there will always be a health risk to the entire population. This is a message that those involved in urban sanitation should promote, as it will prompt authorities to include and prioritize reaching slums and poorer households in their efforts. That will be the only way to realise the ambitions to eradicating extreme poverty by 2030, and reaching everyone everywhere with clean water and sanitation.

What do you want to see on the #NewUrbanAgenda? Over the next six months Habitat for Humanity, Cities Alliance and Devex will join forces to explore the future of our increasingly urbanized world in the run up to Habitat III in October. Spread the word, share your views below or tag @devex and #NewUrbanAgenda.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Andres Hueso

    Andrés Hueso is senior policy analyst for sanitation at WaterAid, providing strategic leadership to WaterAid's global sanitation advocacy agenda since early 2014. He is a cross-disciplinary expert, combining an engineering background and eight years as a development scholar, having conducted research in different countries in South America, Africa and South Asia.

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