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Published on: 14/11/2017

 Toilet in Udaipur

According to the latest UN figures, 4.5 billion people lack safely managed sanitation. We asked IRC Senior Sanitation Specialist Erick Baetings, where do we start to tackle this enormous problem?

“Working towards universal access to safely managed sanitation is a heck of a challenge and it is questionable whether this is achievable by 2030”, Erick says. “Realising 100% access to (and use of) improved sanitation would already be quite an achievement”.

Political leadership

First, we need to put more pressure on political leaders, Erick insists. “They need to make sanitation a priority and allocate sufficient (public) resources”. This is happening in India, remarks IRC’s Delhi-based country coordinator Ruchika Shiva, where the aim is to make the country open defecation free (ODF) by October 2019. The political pressure has resulted in a significant increase in household access to sanitation facilities. The next step is to use that same pressure to increase safe management of faecal waste.

Beyond ODF

Erick questions whether the change from defecating in the open to fixed point defecation in an unimproved household toilet is an improvement. “The idea that once people get accustomed to using a toilet they will move up the sanitation ladder has not materialised at scale. People are more likely to fall off the ladder after they get fed up with their poorly constructed and poorly maintained facilities”.

Minimum standards

“Why don’t we encourage people to install improved sanitation facilities that meet certain minimum criteria”, such as the ease of emptying when pits or tanks fill up, Erick insists. “Millions of toilets have been and are being constructed that cannot be emptied when they are full. And then? Build a new one? Go back to the bush?”

Smart subsidies

Without external (financial) support, poor families are forced to continue to defecate in the open or rely on a very basic unimproved toilet that is unlikely to provide the comfort, convenience and safety they deserve. Erick believes that “too many countries have embraced the subsidy-free community-led total sanitation (CLTS) approach” either out of conviction or because it is seen as very cheap. This is unfair when you see that urban residents do receive subsidised water and sewerage services. “There are examples where smart subsidies or other types of support mechanisms for the poor and other disadvantaged groups have worked”.

Scale-up already!

Erick is clearly frustrated by never-ending pilots and testing, without ever scaling-up. “Haven’t we learned enough? Don’t we feel confident about doing things at scale?” We need to ask ourselves: “can this approach/methodology/technology be replicated and sustained by others including local governments? If the answer is NO then we know for sure that we need to go back to the drawing board instead of wasting limited resources on our own pet projects”.

Calculating water and faecal waste flows in India

Example of flow diagram generated by the Faecal Waste Flow Calculator

If you want to measure sanitation service improvements, you first need to have a baseline assessment. For this purpose IRC developed the Faecal Waste Flow Calculator, which has been field tested in Asia and Africa. The most recent test took place earlier in 2017 in three cities in India – Udaipur, Faridabad and Mysore - as part of the IHUWASH project.

While most of the early teething problems are resolved, Erick says the tests revealed that the tool still requires some additional work so that anyone can use it. This requires for example the incorporation of automatic checks to ensure that data entries are correct and complete.

In India, IRC used the tool to calculate and validate both faecal waste and water supply flows. Surprisingly, no similar tool has been developed for quantifying and mapping water supply volumes. “Water flow diagrams would be just as useful as shit flow diagrams in showing where water is lost along the entire water supply service chain”, Erick explained.

Data gaps

There were some data gaps in the three cities surveyed, either because they were not collected or outdated, says Ruchika Shiva. Generally, the cities are dependent on onsite sanitation facilities, for which less data is available.

Better data will become available once cities start implementing the national policy on faecal sludge and septage management (FSSM). Large infrastructure programmes for urban development have a special provision to fund municipal FSSM solutions. A pre-condition for success is better coordination between the different departments within municipalities that are in charge of different elements of the sanitation service chain.


Udaipur, Faridabad and Mysore all suffer from high levels of non-revenue water (NRW), low cost recovery and large numbers of unfilled vacancies. On the positive side, coverage is high in all cities.

Ruchika discovered that Mysore in particular also does well in other areas, such as “safe water to almost the last mile”, an efficient complaint handling system and qualified staff at the zonal level. In India, sanitation workers often have poor labour conditions. Mysore is a positive exception. There sanitation workers have good equipment, health check-ups every 6 months, formalised labour contracts as municipal employees, and scholarships for children’s education.

Some general conclusions are that cities need more and better trained staff. There should be better coordination between water and sanitation departments. This all needs to be backed up by external technical and political support. Only then will cities provide a better level of service for everyone.


At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.

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