Pit-emptiers and politicians come together to discuss Africa’s sanitation challenges

Themes: Faecal sludge management Regulation Research Sanitation Sewerage Utilities WASH

By Sam Drabble, Head of Research and Learning

Last week sanitation enthusiasts from across Africa and beyond convened in Cape Town for the joint FSM5/AfricaSan conference.

This marked the first time the FSM conference – established as a biannual global event to share best practice in faecal sludge management – merged with AfricaSan, a political forum in which high-level delegates from African states convene to review progress towards the Ngor commitments and SDGs.

The spirit of the two-track programme was captured by Doulaye Kone, Deputy Director at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who recounted a taxi ride from Cape Town airport to the venue, flanked by the rare combination of a pit emptier and a politician… people from different worlds, but each with an essential role to play in achieving universal access.

The conference aimed to create synergy from the city-level experience of FSM practitioners with discussion of the policy and financing mechanisms required to take promising approaches to scale.

As always, the week flew by – here are some rapid (and subjective!) takeaways:

Africa is not progressing nearly fast enough

We shouldn’t pull our punches in outlining the scale of the challenge that awaits many African countries in the period to 2030. Over the past 20 years open defecation has declined in regions across the world but risen in Africa – from 204 million in 2000 to 250 million today.

A new report released by AMCOW defines a clear message for Africa that more effort is needed. To have any prospect of achieving SDG targets, massive acceleration is required – the situation is already beyond urgent. So how can we achieve this step-change?

A policy can go a long way…

The AfricaSan programme reflected the central role of policy frameworks in underpinning progress. The host city provided food for thought – though in a unique context. In Cape Town, South Africa’s policy of providing free basic services has met with a proactive and innovative city authority, who in turn have access to a relatively high tax base.

While still a work in progress, these factors have created the platform to provide a mix of context-specific sanitation services – including container-based sanitation – to low-income settlements on an impressive scale.

…so can good regulation

Regulation also has a fundamental role to play, especially in the context of urban on-site sanitation: a really promising development has been the creation of ESAWAS, an association of regulatory authorities from Eastern and Southern Africa.

A personal highlight of the week was a joint WSUP session with ESAWAS, in which Eng. Peter Mutale (NWASCO) and Eng. Peter Njaggah (WASREB) shared regulatory initiatives with the potential for real impact: the development of a regulatory framework for on-site sanitation in Zambia, and the introduction of a pro-poor Key Performance Indicator for urban utilities in Kenya.

At the interface of regulation and finance, both WASREB and CRA (in Mozambique) are moving towards the introduction of a sanitation surcharge (or tariff) to help bridge the financing gap. These institutions are leading the way, but the reality remains that in many African countries, regulation of urban on-site sanitation does not exist in any meaningful form – and that has to change.

We need public-private collaboration that covers the full sanitation chain

The FSM stream of the conference featured a wide range of city-level case studies, including from South Asia. Of particular interest for WSUP’s work were SNV’s efforts to raise awareness around FSM services in Khulna, Bangladesh.

Examples of public-private partnership (PPP) to deliver FSM services were provided in multiple contexts, including the WSUP-supported SWEEP model, also in urban Bangladesh; and the use of performance-based contracts to move towards regular scheduled emptying in Wai, India.

This growing emphasis on partnerships was accompanied by a strong focus on covering the full sanitation chain and the economic opportunities this creates: the sector is more engaged than ever in testing approaches for valorising faecal sludge (for example, as soil conditioner or biofuel in the form of briquettes).

Policies, programmes and partnerships must find ways to reach the most vulnerable

These ingredients can help move us forward, but the last mile will always be the hardest. In an AfricaSan session with WaterAid, Unicef, and Luapula Water & Sewerage Company, we explored how inclusion can be mainstreamed in the context of designing and providing female-friendly communal and public toilets; and how a genuinely inclusive approach can be integrated into citywide planning.

We know this can be done at the project and city level: one example is the work of WSUP Mozambique in Maputo, whose efforts to provide inclusive shared sanitation services to low-income residents of the city in partnership with the municipality were recognised in the AfricaSan awards.

Sanitation is dignity

In the opening plenary, our host from Water Research Commission gave a powerful account of being struck down by food poisoning on a hike, surrounded by friends, and without access to a toilet – and feeling her “dignity had been ripped off”. For everything that transpired in between, this struck me as the first and last word of the week.

Sanitation is a basic human right, which continues to be denied to nearly half the global population.

It is vital to public health, but it also underpins our personal dignity – which is why the stakes for Africa are so high.