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Cities can't wait for sanitation

Published on: 19/11/2014

Today is World Toilet Day. On this day, the United Nations along with governments and organisations worldwide ask attention for sanitation and for the 2.5 billion people that lack access to safe and hygienic toilets and latrines. On this day, IRC presents the working paper "Towards Systemic Change in Urban Sanitation".

It is great that on this day such an important topic is discussed globally and taken up by media around the world. If one starts to think about the importance of sanitation it is strange to realise that World Toilet Day has only existed since 2001. However, sometimes I wonder whether all this attention is actually leading to any change on the ground. To date, outbreaks of easily preventable diseases like cholera still take place, as we have witnessed this year in Accra, Ghana. Isn't it time to realise that every day is a Toilet Day, and that there is a need to move from awareness raising to action?

During the last year, as part of a traineeship, IRC has given me the chance to outline a vision and process for change regarding urban sanitation. This topic is in my view, one of utmost importance, as the world is increasingly urbanising and current approaches are by and large not addressing the sanitary needs of many living in cities around the world. The problems related to urban sanitation are many, ranging from lack of sanitary facilities, wastewater discharged in creeks and rivers, lack of treatment facilities and the indiscriminate dumping of solid waste. The structural causes behind this mess are equally numerous, ranging from insufficient public funding to the messy politics of urban governance. Technology alone is not the solution. To deliver long-term benefits equally to all residents of a city, solutions must consider the complex nature of urban sanitation with its interconnected social, financial, environmental and institutional dimensions.

During this traineeship year at IRC, I have been challenged to think beyond the obvious. It is relatively easy to state that a problem is complex and that there are various inter-related dimensions to the issue, but what would change look like? And how to get there? Probably these are questions that sector peers have been struggling with long before me and that will also keep me going for the rest of my professional life. Thankfully, I have been lucky to benefit from contributions and discussions with colleagues and sector peers, as well as a vast number of available publications to start formulating an answer. The working paper: 'Towards systemic change in urban sanitation' is one of the first steps in searching for answers on how to reform a sanitation sector, which is failing a large part of the urban population.

Merely applying a planning tool or introducing a new management model will not change the underlying structures, which have led to the current failures.

One of the premises of this working paper is that sanitation is a public good and is therefore a public responsibility. This does not exempt households from their responsibilities, or exclude private businesses from operating in the sanitation sector. However, there is a strong need for governmental agencies to take leadership in reforming the urban sanitation sector. At the same time, the responsible governmental agencies will have to undergo change themselves in this process of reform; merely applying a planning tool or introducing a new management model will not change the underlying structures, which have led to the current failures. The working paper digs deeper in some of the challenges and proposes a process of change leading to a sanitation sector that is self-reliant, trusted by citizens and private parties, and able to monitor itself and respond to current and upcoming challenges. Your comments, thoughts and suggestions on this working paper are highly appreciated.

Every day is a Toilet Day for all of us. Most of the readers of this blog are blessed enough not to have to think of this, so why should others? On this World Toilet Day let us not fall in the trap of surrendering at the thought of all those that are not able to access sanitation services, as if they were some distant victims. Change is possible and action can be taken if we choose to.

THEORY OF CHANGE FOR URBAN SANITATION SECTOR REFORM Source: Baetings and Galli, adapted from Moriarty and Lockwood.



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