Sustainable Sanitation

The urgency for action in the sanitation sector is obvious, considering the 2.6 billion people world-wide who remain without access to any kind of improved sanitation, and the 2.2 million annual deaths (mostly children under the age of 5) caused mainly by sanitation-related diseases and poor hygienic conditions.

The United Nations, during the Millennium Summit in New York in 2000 and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, developed a series of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) aiming to achieve poverty eradication and sustainable development. The specific target set for the provision of water supply and sanitation services is to halve the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation by 2015.

The Joint Monitoring Programme 99 (JMP) of the [[WHO and UNICEF reported in 2004 that the number of people lacking basic sanitation services rose from 2.1 billion in 2001 to 2.6 billion by 2004. As the JMP and the UNDP Human Development Report (2006) have shown, the progress towards meeting the MDG sanitation target is however much too slow, with an enormous gap existing between the intended coverage and today’s reality especially in Sub-Sahara Africa and parts of Asia as it can be seen in the amp showing the relative sizes for each country and the necessary construction of improved sanitation installations until 2015.

The reasons for this are numerous. A major issue is the fact that sanitation rarely benefits from the political attention given to other topics despite its key importance on many other sectors and on all other MDGs. Political will has been sorely lacking when it comes to placing sanitation high on the international development agenda. This has pushed sanitation into the shadows of water supply projects for example, and limited innovation in the sector.

Content Table

Criteria for improved sanitation according to the JMP

IMPROVED SANITATION FACILITIES (Only facilities which are not shared or are not public are considered improved):

UNIMPROVED SANITATION FACILITIES:

  • Flush or pour-flush to elsewhere (Excreta are flushed to the street, yard or plot, open sewer, a ditch, a drainage way or other location)
  • Pit latrine without slab or open pit
  • Bucket
  • Hanging toilet or hanging latrine
  • No facilities or bush or field

Concepts of sustainability in sanitation

The main objective of a sanitation system is to protect and promote human health by providing a clean environment and breaking the cycle of disease. In order to be sustainable a sanitation system has to be not only economically viable, socially acceptable and technically and institutionally appropriate, but it should also protect the environment and the natural resources. When improving an existing and/or designing a new sanitation system, sustainability criteria related to the following aspects should be considered:

(1) Health: includes the risk of exposure to pathogens and hazardous substances that could affect public health at all points of the sanitation system from the toilet via the collection and treatment system to the point of reuse or disposal. The topic also covers aspects such as hygiene, nutrition and improvement of livelihood achieved by the application of a certain sanitation system, as well as downstream effects.

(2) Environment and natural resources: involves the required energy, water and other natural resources for construction, operation and maintenance of the system, as well as the potential emissions to the environment resulting from use. It also includes the degree of recycling and reuse practiced and the effects of these, for example reusing the wastewater, returning nutrients and organic material to agriculture, and the protecting of other non-renewable resources, for example through the production of renewable energies (e.g. biogas or fuel wood).

(3) Technology and operation: incorporates the functionality and the ease with which the system can be constructed, operated and monitored using the available human resources (e.g. the local community, technical team of the local utility etc.). It also concerns the suitability to achieve an efficient substance flow management from a technical point of view. Furthermore, it evaluates the robustness of the system, its vulnerability towards disasters, and the flexibility and adaptability of its technical elements to the existing infrastructure, to demographic and socio-economic developments and climate change.

(4) Financial and economic issues: relate to the capacity of households and communities to pay for sanitation, including the construction, maintenance and depreciation of the system. Besides the evaluation of investment, operation and maintenance costs, the topic also takes into account the economic benefits that can be obtained in “productive” sanitation systems, including benefits from the production of the recyclables (soil conditioner, fertiliser, energy and reclaimed water), employment creation, increased productivity through improved health and the reduction of environmental and public health costs.

(5) Socio-cultural and institutional aspects: the criteria in this category evaluate the socio-cultural acceptance and appropriateness of the system, convenience, system perceptions, gender issues and impacts on human dignity, the contribution to subsistence economies and food security, and legal and institutional aspects.

Most sanitation systems have been designed with these aspects in mind, but in practice they are failing far too often because some of the criteria are not met. In fact, there is probably no system which is absolutely sustainable. The concept of sustainability is more of a journey rather than a stage to reach. Nevertheless, it is crucial, that sanitation systems are evaluated carefully with regard to all dimensions of sustainability. Since there is no one-for-all sanitation solution which fulfills the sustainability criteria under different circumstances to the same extent, this system evaluation will depend on the local framework and has to take into consideration existing environmental, technical, socio-cultural and economic conditions.

Taking into consideration the entire range of sustainability criteria, it is important to observe some basic principles when planning and implementing a sanitation system. These were already developed some years ago by a group of experts and were endorsed by the members of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council as the “Bellagio Principles for Sustainable Sanitation” during its 5th Global Forum in November 2000:

(1) Human dignity, quality of life and environmental security at household level should be at the centre of any sanitation approach.

(2) In line with good governance principles, decision making should involve participation of all stakeholders, especially the consumers and providers of services.

(3) Waste should be considered a resource, and its management should be holistic and form a part of integrated water resources, nutrient flow and waste management processes.

(4) The domain in which environmental sanitation problems are resolved should be kept to the minimum practicable size (household, community, town, district, catchment, city).

Recommendations to make current sanitation more sustainable

Some examples for improving present sanitation practices in the short-term:

  • Pit latrines could be modified to be soil-composting latrines, thus requiring some wall reinforcement, made shallow (max 1-1.5 m) and maintained using daily soil additions; the pits would be periodically closed and covered with soil in order to allow for sanitization and composting prior to emptying and reuse in agriculture.
  • Simple urinals with separate collector systems could be installed instead of using toilets and pit latrines for urination
  • Flush toilets could be modified to use less water.
  • Greywater could be source-separated from the blackwater from toilets thus simplifying its treatment and providing opportunities for reuse.
  • Blackwater from toilets could be held in conservancy tanks instead of open septic tanks and cess pits and then emptied and transported to biogas fermentors; alternatively the toilets could be connected to biogas fermentors.
  • Cess (or drainage) pits e.g. from pour-flush toilets could be equipped with a safety zone of additional filter material to prevent contamination of ground water.
  • Toilets and especially any new toilets could be equipped with urine diversion in order to reduce primarily the nitrogen load to the environment.
  • Above ground dry toilets with urine diversion could be installed in dry areas lacking water, rocky areas where pits are expensive to dig and areas with high water tables and flooding.

References

Sustainable Sanitation Alliance: Towards more sustainable sanitation solutions; [1]

Rockström, Johan et al.: Sustainable Pathways to attain the Millennium Development Goals - Assessing the Key Role of Water, Energy and Sanitation, Stockholm Environmental Institute, 2005. [2]

WHO/UNICEF: Meeting the MDG Drinking Water and Sanitation Target – The urban and rural challenge of the decade; (page 9); [3]

WSSCC/Sandec (2000): The Bellagio Statement on Sustainable Sanitation; [4]

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