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Published on: 05/09/2016

Urban sanitation is a key challenge towards the Sustainable Development Goal’s ambition of universal access by 2030; largely due to rapid urbanisation and the lack of sustainable service delivery models that improve living conditions across entire cities. Two meetings on urban sanitation held at the Stockholm World Water Week (SWWW) showed that there is increasing interest in this topic and that stakeholders are keen to discuss approaches, models and successes, to learn from each other and to share these lessons widely. All in all very good and very exciting! In particular if it makes us more efficient and effective in addressing the huge challenges that the world is confronted with.

What is my personal take on the two urban sanitation dialogues that I attended? 

City-wide sanitation services: recent thinking and experiences

The first official sanitation SWWW event was held in the morning of Sunday 28 August 2016 and organised by WaterAid, Water Governance Facility, GIZ, SuSanA and the World Bank Group  The event was organised to bring together urban sanitation stakeholders to share the latest thinking on planning and city-wide sanitation service delivery as well as to learn from successful cities. The results of research commissioned by WaterAid (A tale of clean cities: insights from planning urban sanitation from Ghana, India and the Philippines) was shared during the meeting. Some of the findings presented include:

  1. substantial but uneven progress along links of the sanitation service chain as presented in the table below;
  2. urban poor and those living in challenging areas are left behind; and
  3. progress resulting from emerging opportunities.

According to the research, city sanitation planning was not a key determinant for success but the planning exercises made meaningful contributions as it helped to raise awareness, forged an aspirational vision of a clean city, and improved collaboration. The research structured the development of sanitation into three phases: piloting; consolidation; and city-wide expansion. Although you could question ‘what’s in a name’, the name of the first phase does not appear to cover the actual suggested key activities. IRC’s approach for triggering and driving (systemic) change consists of three distinctive, but overlapping phases. Although similar to WaterAid, the process starts with a more pronounced visioning and diagnostic phase. Furthermore experience has taught us that it is essential to build in critical learning and feedback loops – both within individual phases but also across the different phases – as those are necessary to review and where necessary validate strategies, plans, solutions and so on.

The presentation was followed by a market place where eight different organisations presented sanitation experiences from different cities. In some 40 minutes I was able to visit the tables discussing Khulna in Bangladesh, Dakar in Senegal, Kumasi in Ghana, and Sawahlunto in Indonesia. Ten minutes per city is not a lot especially if most of the time is used to explain what the organisations have been doing. In most cases the short presentations served as a tasty appetiser that helped to stimulate my brain but right now I am left with the question: where can I find the main course. Learning from success requires a lot more insight into what was done and what was achieved.

The issues of planning and costs for improving urban sanitation service levels were brought up during the plenary discussion that followed the market place. Lack of sufficient resources and lack of insight in what works and what it costs were considered as huge challenges. Do we make plans to attract (new) investments? Do we make plans when financing is available? Do we plan in accordance with available revenue streams? What costs are being incurred by the different programmes to improve sanitation service levels? A number of organisations committed themselves to preparing “success story” reports with full costing. Some warned that success stories cannot be automatically replicated in other locations and that solutions need to be context specific. To be able to move forward swiftly the sector requires a better understanding of what works and what does not work in specific contexts. Basically we need a better insight into these local “successes” and the costs incurred in the process. Being successful – especially when working at small scale in one location – is not too difficult. Being successful at large scale, however, is a completely different ball game. 

Planning urban sanitation

In the afternoon of Monday 29 August a closed meeting on urban sanitation planning, organised by WaterAid, SIWI, SuSanA, GIZ and the World Bank Group, was attended by some 35 urban sanitation experts. After a couple of introductions the meeting started with “espresso” presentations of existing planning approaches, namely: WHO’s Sanitation Safety Plan; GIZ’s City Sanitation Plans; IWA’s Sanitation21; EAWAG’s CLUES; and UTS-ISF’s Options assessment. The most noticeable remarks I picked up are: “there are successful examples of city-wide inclusive sanitation… but there are no silver bullets”; sanitation is a city-wide issue which cannot be resolved locally”; “urban sanitation is a core municipal service and not just a side event”; “a call for action should be somewhat disruptive or provocative”.

After three more presentations a couple of fundamental questions were raised. Most of the tools and/or approaches are developed and tested with donor backing. How can we support local processes without this financial support? How does investment drive urban sanitation? Do we consider urban sanitation as a complex system and do we assess, address and monitor all its parts? Are we clear about the potential health and economic impacts? I got the impression that some of the experts were worried about the “huge” amount of tools and approaches available. Are we over-analysing and over-planning? It is apparently becoming so confusing that WaterAid is in the process of developing a decision support matrix for urban sanitation planning that will help practitioners to select the right planning tools or approaches during the different process phases. Others openly questioned the need for comprehensive and participatory planning processes.

After that I participated in an interesting discussion in a smaller group that was asked to look at the possible role of the decision support matrix. We agreed that before any interventions are planned it is necessary to carry out a readiness assessment. Is the city ready to manage the intended changes to existing systems? Is there sufficient “potential for action”? To avoid that inappropriate investment decisions are being made – for example when existing capacities are inadequate to manage complex hardware solutions – it might be good to consider going for “no regret” investments. This would mean that you would start with smaller investments, slowly grow and simultaneously work on all the relevant parts of the system, and then move towards larger investments over time.  Another interesting insight was that for real change to happen, you need a crisis, a strong leader with a clear (aspirational) vision, and a strong executive to see things through.


What did we (I) learn and how will it influence future actions? Because people’s behaviour is based on their perception of what reality is, not on reality itself, it is likely that although I have seen and heard the same thing I may have interpreted it differently. This means that I can only speak for myself here. The above observations show my own selective perception. It is what I saw and heard based on my own interest, background, experience, and attitudes. Obviously that is not without risk of drawing an inaccurate picture.

What if we found the right balance between being a perfectionist planner and a pragmatic doer? Trying to develop the most ideal and most comprehensive plan that tries to address all parts of the system might be as ineffective as an immediate jump forward by choosing the first solution that presents itself. Solutions that are based on a simplification of the complex system may not necessarily be the most optimal solutions. Rather, we need to ensure processes are sufficiently flexible so that we are prepared and ready to seize opportunities for change as they occur.

Kudos to the people who organised the two events. It was inspiring to see so many dedicated “experts” in one space sharing their experiences and opinions. However, for the sector to move from first to fifth gear – necessary to achieve the SDG targets – a lot more learning and sharing will be necessary in the coming years. We need to agree on what success means and which results on the ground represent success. We also need a better understanding of what key interventions or processes were carried out, what time frame was required, and what costs were incurred. And maybe most importantly, how can we achieve and scale up success within existing local (government) structures and systems without reliance on donor funds.


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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