Safely managed onsite sanitation: a life changer for low-income communities

Themes: Climate change Container-based sanitation Customer experience Evaluation Faecal sludge management Health impact Planning Public/shared toilets Sanitation Urban Sanitation Research Initiative
Countries: Bangladesh Bangladesh-local Ghana Ghana-local

Toilets: we cannot live without them. However, about half of humanity does. According to the United Nations, 3.6 billion people around the globe live without access to a toilet “that works properly”.

With that in mind, the UN has focused on those in need of this very basic service on its campaign for World Toilet Day 2021, celebrated on 19th November: “Who cares about toilets? 3.6 billion people do. Because they don’t have one”.

The UN has also come up with a message for the other half of the world’s population: “If you’re lucky enough to have one, say thanks and give it some love!”. On World Toilet Day 2021, we have all been invited to appreciate the unquestionable – and often forgotten – value of the toilet.

This value is directly linked to a sense of urgency. For the sake of individuals, communities, and the environment, providing access to safe and reliable toilets is something that simply cannot wait.

And yet, while many people around the world equate toilets with sewered systems, there are many occasions where the physical terrain, and the cost, make the establishment of a sewered system unrealistic. In these cases, authorities and community leaders must look at safely managed onsite sanitation as a viable alternative.

Beyond piped sewers

In 2017, a report jointly produced by WSUP and EY summarised the issue in one sentence: “The world can’t wait for sewers”. The logic was simple: the health and environmental issues that a sanitation system addresses are too urgent to depend on long-term costly investment.

As the WSUP/EY paper argued, “For many, flush toilets and connections to a piped sewer or septic system are simply not an option. Frequently the infrastructure just doesn’t exist (and may take years to come), systems are too expensive or technically difficult to construct (particularly in densely populated, flood prone, hilly or rocky areas) or service fees are too high”.

Cartridges from the Clean Team operation in Ghana

The report presented container-based sanitation (CBS), — a service-based business model using stand-alone toilets that store waste in sealable, removable cartridges —  as a very good alternative for low-income communities in countries without enough resources to implement sewerage systems. The cartridges may then be safely removed, without exposing residents to the waste – and taken to a treatment recovery centre for processing and cleaning.

In 2017, Clean Team, set up by WSUP in Ghana, was already one of the best examples of a successfully implemented CBS service, but the system still needed more time to be properly assessed. Recent feedback and quality evaluation have confirmed the initial encouraging response, with users in Ghana revealing the immense positive impact Clean Team has had in their lives.

This has particularly been the case for women and girls, who now rate their toilet experience even higher than local men do. Their satisfaction with their own ability to practice menstrual hygiene management has increased from 23% to 97% after being provided with the Clean Team service.

By offering a reliable and healthy system, without connection to a wider pipe network, the CBS and other models represent a safely managed onsite sanitation service, something that provides residents with the dignity of having a satisfactory toilet option even when circumstances do not allow the implementation of large networks of pipes. Safely managed onsite sanitation is a life changer, and on this year’s World Toilet Day WSUP is reminding ourselves of that.

Collection and treatment

A SWEEP truck in operation in the city of Chattogram, in Bangladesh

Container-based sanitation is just one potential solution to the challenge of poor sanitation in cities. Safely managed onsite sanitation can also be achieved through traditional pit latrines and septic tanks, thanks to regular professional emptying services. A good example of the benefits of such operation comes from Bangladesh, where SWEEP has been emptying waste from latrines and tanks, which is then taken to a facility to be treated safely.

First established in 2015, SWEEP started its operations in the national capital, Dhaka and then taken to communities in six other cities. By 2021, more than 2.2 million people have benefited from the SWEEP service, which has reduced the threat to public health posed by onsite toilet facilities, especially when those areas are hit by extreme weather events, such as cyclones – an occurrence more and more common with climate change.

The importance of building a broader plan

Although disconnected from a sewer network, onsite sanitation facilities still exist as part of a wider system. In order to bring together the responsible institutions, ensure adequate accountability and manage resources appropriately, a broader sanitation plan is needed.

This approach has been taken in the city of Malindi, in Kenya, a municipality whose challenges illustrate well the need for safely managed onsite sanitation within a wider strategy. In Malindi, which is largely dependent on onsite sanitation, only 25% of the human waste is safely managed – and 90% of hand dug wells are contaminated.

In order to address those issues, a plan has been prepared, including a phased approach for sanitation and waste management. It combined four types of sanitation systems, depending on the specific conditions of each particular area, including onsite models – septic tank and lined pit latrines. The broad plan involved a household toilet improvement programme, communal ablution blocks, engagement of a pit emptiers association, and other programmes and technologies.

Learn more about improving citywide sanitation systems

Engaging local communities

Action is needed not just at the city level, but also within individual communities. The use of safely managed onsite sanitation requires a good understanding from the local population about the importance of personal hygiene, something WSUP, alongside local organisations, has been promoting in many countries.

In Mozambique, in the city of Beira, WSUP has been working with the sanitation authority SASB and local communities in order to improve their hygiene practices. Agents speak to local residents about how to best keep themselves and their spaces clean, so they can avoid diseases such as diarrhea and cholera.

“People have realised that sanitation is more than just washing your hands, and having your waste deposited in the well, that there are criteria on how to wash your hands; and the results are encouraging,” said Moisés Chenene, director of SASB.

WSUP activists speak to a local resident in the city of Beira, in Mozambique

Individual actions can not only improve personal hygiene, but also prevent rubbish being left in the neighbourhood, which blocks waterways and presents an environmental hazard. Combined with broader plans to offer good and reliable sanitation to all, these actions can support the ultimate goal of a safely managed toilet: to safeguard the health of the people and the sustainability of the environment.

Providing reliable and dignified sanitation to every human being on Earth is one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, SDG 6, for the year 2030: to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”. Giving every single person on the planet safe access to a toilet is at the heart of that goal. Safely managed onsite sanitation plays a vital role in making that goal feasible. On World Toilet Day, we highlight its importance as a life-changing alternative.

Top image: Clean Team toilets are displayed for a local community in Ghana