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Published on: 12/02/2015

By Christophe Nothomb (Senior Programme Officer) and Marielle Snel (Programme Officer)

In the beginning of the 90s, I was studying urban and regional planning in the USA with a focus on urban service in the South. I find it intriguing that we are still reflecting on how to focus on sustainable services that last not only in urban but also rural settings. Since then even more action research, programmes, projects, etc. have been undertaken on this topic. Over the years and especially the past two, we at IRC have co-organized two specific workshops reflecting on issues around how to create sustainable sanitation services and have come up with three key challenges.

There is a need for more attention to the whole sanitation chain.

Sanitation is more than building a toilet and includes changed hygienic behaviours, maintenance, emptying, treatment and disposal or reuse of accumulated faecal matter.

Too often, sanitation issues are only focusing on the provision of physical facilities – toilets or latrines – with the consequence that sanitation access is reduced to the number of people with latrines. But in order to provide a real sanitation service, we need to make sure that the full service chain is in place. It refers to: (1) demand creation, (2) access, (3) containment, (4) emptying, (5) transport, (6) treatment and (7) re-use or disposal. It is when all of these aspects are actually taken care of that we can speak of a truly complete "whole sanitation chain" that will provide sustainable sanitation services.

The components of a sanitation chain are often approached separately, by different and unconnected actors, each with their own activities or functions and associated costs.

Current thinking in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector points to the need to move away from only delivering hardware and to focus on a 'service delivery approach'. Such an approach includes hardware but also software, and includes planning, management and governance systems to ensure that sanitation services will last over time. There is therefore a need to think about and work with this shift that tackles the 'whole system' for the provision of sustainable sanitation.

Need for clear leadership for change

Sanitation improvements are not the sole responsibility of one entity, being usually spread between households, private service providers (latrine builders, emptying companies) and various line ministries (Min. of Health, Education, Infrastructure, Environment). Sanitation improvements are often led by different donors and NGOs and are rarely linked up to government leadership and regulation. Lack of leadership has resulted in fragmentation in the sector. This means a lack of synergy between the different partners and systems in place, whether that takes place at the international or national level. To address this issue, leadership is required by governments. The challenge is to find and operationalise the needed synergies between national WASH actors/players from both the public and the private sector and also across the sanitation chain.

The sanitation sector requires coordination and alignment from many players as well as supporting and regulatory functions. The latter is typically the responsibility of national and local governments. However, in many countries, either there is not a unique institution with the overall responsibility for sanitation, or this designated institution is weak and is not able to lead the sector towards change.

Compared with other basic services, sanitation receives very limited public finance for implementation efforts at scale

Currently, the level of knowledge and understanding of financial flows to sanitation is very limited, due to the lack of reliable data tracking systems, but from the data reported in GLAAS, the amount of domestic public finance that supports sanitation services is very limited.

We need public finance for three key elements of the sanitation chain, namely: (1) to ensure that the poor have access to services, (2) to ensure that regulation and monitoring is in place to track improvements in services; and (3) to create a safe environment for private investors to innovate and support scaling up. Other components of universal service delivery which will require public finance (to some extent) include: school sanitation and hygiene programmes, public latrines in market places, and hygiene promotion programmes. These are frequently recognized as "public goods" which almost by definition need financial support from public sources.

Clearly, if existing funds to sanitation are not tracked, it remains difficult to compare the effectiveness of alternative public financing strategies for the sector. It will therefore be essential to identify ways in which public funds, specifically for sanitation, can be spent more effectively to maximise long-terms benefits to health, welfare and overall productivity.

Moving forward...

The creation of sustainable sanitation services is inevitably country specific, as they will be guided by national policies and legal frameworks, which set out detailed descriptions of standards, rights and responsibilities, and cut across different institutional levels. There are three key recommendations in moving towards truly sustainable sanitation services, namely:

  1. Focusing on the whole sanitation chain will help resolve the challenges around small, unsustainable, isolated interventions. This entails thinking outside of each actor's activities, facilitating their interactions and coordination, and undertaking quality monitoring at all stages of the chain, so not just focus on access to facilities but the environmental safety and actual use by communities. This monitoring needs to include also the performance of service providers and of the regulatory and enforcement systems.
  2. Resolving the fragmentation in the sector through government leadership. This means an integrated approach reaching out to different networks and forming or strengthening partnerships within international, national and local institutions, organisations active, for example, in WASH but also in Health, Education and Private sector. To coordinate this enhanced inter-sectoral cooperation at national level, clarified roles and responsibilities of the state actors are required, including the agreement on and the capacity (in terms of human and financial resources) of the lead ministry or institution for sanitation service delivery.
  3. At national level, the leadership for implementation of national policies and frameworks often relies too much on foreign aid and on the households themselves, and therefore is bound to fail because funding from only these sources will always be insufficient. Sustainable financing mechanisms are needed to ensure steady financial flows between national and local levels. Such mechanisms can be ensured by taxes in addition to the existing transfer and tariffs systems.

Simply by reflecting on the statistical sanitation facts we can see that creating sustainable sanitation services based on looking at one or two dimensional programme approaches- meaning focusing only on one or two aspects in the sanitation chain - has and will not work in the future. As an international citizen of the world, I look forward to further sound critical thinking and action (!) to move towards sustainable sanitation services that last which is what IRC continues to believe in and is working towards especially with our government partners in our focus countries.


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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