Citywide Inclusive Sanitation: perspectives from Manila

Themes: Finance Planning Sanitation Utilities

Yaver AbidiBy Yaver Abidi, Managing Director, WSUP Advisory


Last week I was in Manila, at an annual meeting organised by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Citywide Inclusive Sanitation.

Citywide Inclusive Sanitation is the notion that current approaches to sanitation are too small in scale and too focused on infrastructure to genuinely deliver universal coverage across whole urban areas.

What’s needed is a new approach: a change in mindsets to focus on policies, planning, governance and management.

I was in Manila to share WSUP’s thinking on how to drive sanitation improvements across major cities, highlighting innovations and approaches that other city authorities, investors and policymakers could learn from.

In this blog, I will share the key message that I presented, along with eight supporting insights.

The primary message, which underpins all WSUP’s work, is that universal coverage cannot be achieved without a competent citywide institution which takes responsibility for every customer.

This means a public sector entity, usually a municipal authority or utility, which has a clear mandate to improve sanitation for all the city’s citizens. Without this, small-scale projects can work, but change at significant scale will never happen.

WSUP has seen this reality across the multiple countries in which it operates, and in my presentation I drew particularly on experiences from Maputo (Mozambique), Visakhapatnam (India), Nairobi (Kenya) and Chittagong (Bangladesh).


1: Citywide transformation is a long-term process

Tangible progress, such as elimination of open defecation, is possible within six months. But embedding change across the sanitation chain, and within the institutions that can deliver universal coverage, requires several years of patient, dedicated work.

2: Leadership at all levels is a pre-requisite to success

Leadership from the very top is a vital part of success, as we have seen in India with Prime Minister Modi’s Swachh Bharat programme. But its not enough. Leaders within municipal authorities and utilities – from the MD level to the low-income units – are also needed to champion change.

3: Existing political and administrative hierarchies must be leveraged

In urban areas, change happens through the systems that already exist. Finding ways to exploit these systems for the benefit of sanitation coverage is a vital part of the puzzle – for example by engaging with different levels of the existing governance structure.

4 Rapid and tangible service improvements are an essential precursor to citywide change

By showing the difference that improved service brings, both in terms of benefits for customers and revenue for utilities, it is possible to generate the political momentum and community support for more fundamental change.

5 Public-private partnerships are critical but need a strong public partner to be effective

There is a lot of talk at meetings like this about the role of the private sector, and rightly so, as businesses can bring innovation, resources and a relentless focus on customer service. But what is said less often is that partnerships between the public sector and private sector require a strong public sector partner, that can drive change forward and make the necessary policy changes to support the private sector.

6 Serving low-income customers requires specific skills and strengthens the utility

Low-income customers have different needs compared to richer customers and utilities need to change their marketing, service development and payment models to reflect this. Where utilities are able to make these changes, it can lead to a significant improvement in customer base and revenue.

7 Clear regulation is needed to create correct incentives

Regulation can help to clarify the responsibilities of service providers, and incentivise them to make sure that they are prioritising the poorest – and hardest to reach – urban residents.

8 Women are critical agents of change at all levels

Decision-making in cities is often dominated by men, yet its women who suffer most from poor sanitation. We’ve seen in our work that where women are more involved in implementing change, progress can be quicker and much more substantial.

Read more about this topic

Poster presentation: Driving Citywide Sanitation in cities of 2m plus: lessons learned

How to improve sanitation across an entire city: the case of Visakhapatnam

A journey of institutional change: extending water services to Nairobi’s informal settlements

An integrated approach to peri-urban sanitation and hygiene in Maputo

Image: low-income community in Maputo, Mozambique