Toilets are fashionable again. Maybe not in my bathroom, as I have a ubiquitous white bowl. But in global development, sanitation “solutions” are en vogue. In part due to the taboo around fecal oriented discussions, sanitation has been the poor parent of water during the various campaigns of the last few decades and the early Millennium Development Goals. Thankfully, the sector has recognized that it’s unacceptable for at least a third of the world to lack access to improved sanitation and we’ve finally begun to see the topic of coming to the table with the new funding initiatives and the Sustainable Development Goals.

For a sanitation engineer like me, this is very exciting. All this hype and long awaited recognition of the importance of adequate sanitation for all means that new dollars are being invested in the cause and the sector is looking for innovative solutions to solve these gigantic challenges around the world. But as solutions are being tested out in developing countries, who will own them? Who, in the end, decides which infrastructure and new behaviors are priorities for their home, community, city, or state? Is it a utility’s responsibility or a business opportunity? Is it enforced or a choice?

And this is where I see things get really difficult. I’ve watched my sector go through various trends in how we approach the sanitation dilemma. First, since the 1980s we’ve seen that simply installing toilets for people was a flop, as it wasn’t as much a hardware problem as one of poor demand: in rural areas especially, many people are content with their usual, traditional practices and don’t see the need to build a toilet. Then, in 2000, the Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) approach came to the rescue. Proven to have worked in Bangladesh, the approach aims to “trigger” communities through sensitization activities with community members, such as mapping the flow of shit in their village, and explaining the implications of fecal-oral transmission on health, to stop open defecation and start building basic toilets. It has been very successful in parts of rural South Asia, and promising elsewhere, and has been adopted as policy by NGOs and governments. However, it has its critics: there are practical limitations, as people tend to only build basic structures that fall apart. Some raise ethical concerns, as this triggering can effectively turn into naming and shaming of community members who defecate in the open. The much debated political obstacle is that CLTS forbids government subsidies for toilet construction, which many countries and states continue to offer, even as it may work against the behavior change oriented approach.

At present, the sector’s answer is to look at both the “demand side” and the “supply side,” i.e. which types of toilets are available to people and how. Step forward the Sanitation Marketing approach, popular since the mid-2000s. As a way to engage private sector actors, it uses elements of marketing (to determine which toilets people want), of entrepreneurial and start-up thinking (for toilet sellers), and financing options. Such market-led approaches have been key to attract famous philanthropists, such as Bill and Melinda Gates, sanitation’s biggest donors, who sponsored the “Reinvent the Toilet” challenge and give about $90 million to water and sanitation annually.

My fellow sanitation engineers, or anyone who has thought about what happens after you flush, know that the challenges are much bigger than what is hyped by the sector or the awareness raised by “World Toilet Day.” A key issue is related to the less glamorous yet emerging topic of on-site sanitation, especially in slums or other poor urban areas. You see, toilets are connected to either “on-site” or “off-site” sanitation systems. While off-site systems refer to sewerage and the disposal and treatment in plants where sewage eventually ends up, on-site systems (typified by pit toilets or septic tanks) need maintenance because effluence remain on the property. In technical terms, the euphemistic if unappealing term of “Fecal Sludge Management” refers to the pumping out of the contents from a pit and transporting that mixture of poo and garbage to a treatment plant. Ideally, the treated product can then be reused.

Despite the increased attention and slowly increased funding: more than $90 billion is needed annually to provide everybody with good services, more than three times the current spending. As a result, little progress has been made, especially in poor urban areas: the number of people without “improved” sanitation has remained pretty much stable at around 2.4 billion people in the last 25 years.

Despite the increased attention and slowly increased funding: more than $90 billion is needed annually to provide everybody with good services, more than three times the current spending. As a result, little progress has been made, especially in poor urban areas: the number of people without “improved” sanitation has remained pretty much stable at around 2.4 billion people in the last 25 years.

A big part of the funding stalemate may be partially attributed to how challenging this fecal sludge management part is to implement. Fecal Sludge Management Conferences (yes, they exist) are mostly devoted to treatment techniques involving sunshine, nano-membranes, fly larvae and lactic acid amongst others. However, in the last ten years there is growing attention on what’s seen as the real bottleneck in this chain: emptying and transport. For all of humankind’s efforts to find water on Mars, we are still unable to pump shit from a pit in a hygienic yet affordable manner: tankers are often too big to enter slums, and motorized pumps too expensive to be used viably – we still remember the failures of the Vacutug and the MAPET. There are also many innovations in area of vacuum, sucking or motorized devices to remove sludge, especially simpler manual pumps with evocative names (the Gulper, the Rammer, the Excrevator…).

Manual cleaning of a septic tank in Dakar, Senegal. September, 2011. Photographer: Linda Strande
On-site sanitation is typically serviced by the informal sector. Nairobi, October 2013. Photograph: Linda Strande

These innovative pumps are a more appealing and cleaner solution compared to the traditional practices of on-site pit emptying. The traditional methods are typically performed with a shovel and a bucket by informal emptiers, usually operating at night, illegally, and in the most horrid conditions. The bayakou of Haiti, vyura (“frogmen”) of Tanzania and safai karamcharis of India have one of the worst jobs in he world, facing not only diseases and accidents but also strong discrimination. So these technological options are seen to offer a slightly more convenient, efficient, and sanitary approach. Most of them have been tested through small entrepreneurs – and very often the same informal emptiers operating semi-illegally, with the hope that the fees collected can cover the costs of emptying pits, transporting sludge andrunning treatment plants. You can see many case studies from Water for People, WaterAid, WSUP, UN-Habitat and others showing happy entrepreneurs in protective gear. Despite what looks like a flurry of innovative business models, insiders see that the sector continues to promote the same examples repeatedly, and that the most recognized examples are known because of their strong NGO support (and communications teams) more than their actual business viability. As pronounced by EAWAG, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, “Pilots never fail and never scale”.

On-site sanitation is typically serviced by the informal sector. Nairobi, October 2013. Photographer: Linda Strande
Manual cleaning of a septic tank in Dakar, Senegal. September, 2011. Photograph: Linda Strande

As a rule of thumb, if you have heard about a sanitation “business”, it is likely to be heavily subsidized. This isn’t wrong in itself, but it doesn’t reflect the dreams of a “Sanitation Silicon Valley” where reinventing the toilet means giving the keys of a new technology to an entrepreneur. Some funders have realized this, like the Stone Family Foundation who openly discussed what they learned from funding waste and sanitation. The faith in these entrepreneurs remains unscathed in our sector, because they represent an ideal solution: they are supposed to be sustainable by definition, they address an otherwise unsurmountable challenge, and they should require only minimal initial investment.

Good, truly successful examples are rare, and this only highlights how the sanitation taboo prevents faith in market forces from becoming a reality. Shit, like garbage, doesn’t bring much money. But whilst solid waste management is almost always integrated in municipal services, the sector has not been stressing the need for public involvement in human waste sanitation. By forbidding subsidies as part of the CLTS approach, by promoting community management as the key ingredient to success, and now by showing how private entrepreneurs can supposedly do it all, we are too often leaving aside local authorities. As a result, utilities focus on water provision only, and sanitation has become nobody’s responsibility. Large investors such as development banks continue to fund sewers serving rich areas. In promoting these new systems, we have ignored what made sanitation possible in rich nations, which is strong political willingness to tackle the issue, a large amount of public investment, and concerted collaboration between institutions – and especially between authorities, public utilities, and private sector actors.

The poorer residents of the developing cities shanty towns know this well, they see that improving sanitation isn’t an engineering feat but a first step towards regularization, and often their lives as normal citizens

Political willingness is actually a crucial factor, as we seem to have forgotten that toilets are a dynamic political subject. The poorer residents of the developing cities shanty towns know this well, they see that improving sanitation isn’t an engineering feat but a first step towards regularization, and often their lives as normal citizens. Toilets are governance indicators and political acts. Within cities, they symbolize power struggles and inequalities. Pit emptiers, scavengers and cleaners, and those having to defecate in the open are the first to feel this struggle. As cities develop, their citizens also aspire to what they see as a “normal” life, which often means a healthy and comfortable lifestyle, with what is perceived as the greatest and the most ubiquitous form of sanitation: a flush toilet. When governments effectively deny this simple right, we have seen citizens taking to the streets.

We cannot continue to treat the issue of toilets and sludge from a purely economic and technological angle. In NGOs, our market-led focus has been a convenient way to charm the new private philanthropists while ignoring the political side. While we are busy equipping some local entrepreneurs with new pumps, utility companies continue to focus on water and (sometimes) sewerage, ignoring the billion people living in slums who bear most of the health burdens of poor sanitation. Our initiatives are too often isolated and do little to influence those utilities, who have the mandate to serve their residents and the ability to borrow and invest in large infrastructure. Our work needs to be ultimately targeted at the local authorities and the utility companies so that they take the same interest as we do in the challenging – and motivating – issue of on-site sanitation and sludge.