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UN-Habitat report connects advances in sanitation to wider urban development

Themes: Container-based sanitation Faecal sludge management Innovation Public/shared toilets Regulation Sanitation Sewerage Urban Sanitation Research Initiative Utilities WASH
Countries: Global

The recent second assembly of UN-Habitat, the United Nations Human Settlements Progamme, in Nairobi (Kenya) in early June, saw the launch of a unique global study about challenges and advances in the management of wastewater and faecal sludge.

Produced by a consortium led by WSUP and which included Aguaconsult, ESAWAS, UCLC, Thuyloi University, and GSMA, the report explores sanitation systems and conditions in 18 cities around the world, with in-depth studies of 5 of them – Medellin (Colombia), Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), Dhaka (Bangladesh), Nakuru (Kenya), and Hanoi (Vietnam).

One of the lead authors, Sam Drabble, WSUP’s Head of Evaluation, Research & Learning, explains, in the conversation below, why the report stands out in revealing the sanitation reality in urban contexts, now affected by conditions either created or exacerbated by climate change.

To red the full UN-Habitat report, click here for the UN-Habitat website.

The main stated aim of the report is to “bring sanitation and wastewater to the heart of the urban development agenda”. How important is that goal?

Sam Drabble – The report first approaches that question by setting out the vast negative impacts of the neglect of sanitation and wastewater management to date. We set out the health, environmental, and socioeconomic impacts of that neglect and make the case for a public service response to the sanitation challenge. A second component to that is recognising that sanitation is very strongly connected to other aspects of urban development. The report was commissioned by UN Habitat, and of course UN Habitat’s mandate extends to urban development more broadly. Part of the added value of the report is setting out what integration of sanitation and wastewater management with urban planning looks like in practice. We’re making the case in the report that to achieve movement in sanitation at the scale that is required, it’s not going to be good enough to address sanitation in isolation. Sanitation needs to be recognised as fundamental to urban development, because of those impacts that I’ve mentioned, and then the approach needs to connect sanitation with those wider aspects of urban planning. It’s a two-way relationship, really: urban development will not advance in the way that it needs to if sanitation is not part of that, and sanitation will not advance if it’s not connected to other aspects of urban development.

WSUP’s Sam Drabble presenting the findings of the UN-Habitat report on sanitation and wastewater in Nairobi

The consortium that WSUP has led includes partners from Europe, Africa, Asia. What is the value of this diversity? What is the importance of having partners from different parts of the world?

Sam Drabble – For a global report of this type, that consortium and wide range of partners has really been essential. A core part of the rationale for the report is the lack of data, particularly on wastewater and faecal sludge treatment. UN Habitat is the global custodian of SDG 6.3.1, which is focused on wastewater treatment, and it’s challenging to get that data from countries. There’s a gap there at the global level, born of a still greater gap at the country level. Part of the aim of this report was to bridge the data gap and to engage directly with the service authorities who are responsible for sanitation and wastewater management in their cities. The consortium partners have been central to that and have informed the choice of case studies, because we’ve privileged cities where we can access the data and the institutional partners. Having, for example, Thuyloi University in Vietnam has enabled us to do a deep dive into the situation in Hanoi, which is a fascinating case in terms of climate resilience, a core topic of the report, because Hanoi is dealing with very high levels of high-intensity rainfall and is implementing sustainable urban drainage systems in response.

Similarly, in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, where our consulting partner 2iE is based, they’ve been able to leverage their networks to explore the situation around extending onsite sanitation in informal settlements. ESAWAS have a fantastic vantage point at the regional level, and our partnership with them has enabled us to access data from cities like Dar-es-Salaam. They’re also strongly connected to the regulator Wasreb in Kenya, and Nakuru is another one of our case studies. So, the logic of the consortium has really had a lot of benefits for the study. The report is truly global in nature: we also look at Latin America, with the case study in Medellin, Colombia, and Europe, where cities are deploying cutting edge innovations in wastewater management, such as Paris, Hamburg and Sofia.

Does this diversity, which is clear in the report, allow for future collaborations, future learnings, between these cities, areas, and regions around the world?

Sam Drabble – I would say that is the next stage in this process. It has been fascinating for us to engage with these cities on an individual level, and the report is then aiming to synthesize the learnings from across those different cities and different contexts. The report is quite nuanced in the judgement that it gives around the extent that any city can generalise on the right approach, taking into account contextual differences. But certainly, a next stage would be to ensure that the cities that were engaged directly in providing data for this report have the opportunity to study the report’s findings in depth. More broadly, it’s about cities beyond this sample, I would say. A core value of the report is showcasing cities that are engaging with this challenge around citywide sanitation and wastewater management.

In the recommendations, we reference the power of peer-to-peer learning, the power of knowledge transfer across regions. We talk about some of the mechanisms, like Water Operators Partnerships, that already exist to support that type of peer-to-peer learning. With reports of this type, the underlying rationale, in my view, is to inspire other cities to replicate some of these best-fit approaches. To demonstrate that, notwithstanding the challenges which are significant around financing and institutional frameworks and all of the foundational elements that need to be in place, there are many examples out there of cities that are innovating and are driving forward sector reforms and are engaging with, for example, climate resilience and the challenges in that area. Ultimately, the aim is for other cities to take lessons from the report and to be inspired to replicate those where that makes sense in their particular context.

Download the UN-Habitat report

Woman using a public toilet in the city of Nakuru, Kenya

The report makes six recommendations, the first with regard to financial aspects. How is it possible to ensure that investment is made more wisely?

Sam Drabble – There are many aspects to that, I think it’s very complex. But we reference in the report the need for localised data around the costings of different sanitation options. A kind of first stage is understanding the level of finance that is required at the city level, there needs to be recognition that a wide range of financial sources will be required. IFI investment, for example, the large-scale capital infrastructure improvements that need to be made in many contexts, notably around faecal sludge treatment. The report highlights that many low-income cities do not have the treatment infrastructure in place for faecal sludge treatment at city-wide scale, even though onsite sanitation is the predominant form of sanitation in those cities. There needs to be large-scale investment to support capital infrastructure, and in many cases that may come from IFIs – and overseas development assistance has an important role to play, a catalytic role to play. But then there needs to be recognition of the wide range of financial sources that can contribute to effective operation and maintenance of facilities, and that includes engagement of the private sector in managing those facilities with effective performance contracts. It includes, of course, public finance and national transfers, the development of, for example, sanitation surcharges, like the instrument that has recently been introduced in Kenya. And all of this needs to be underpinned by investment planning, a long-term vision in terms of the different financial streams that can contribute to the sustainable provision of services.

The UN-Habitat report on sanitation and wastewater

The recommendations also touch on the integration of urban development. How is it possible to break the silos in urban development? Is there a formula to do that?

Sam Drabble – Not yet a proven formula as such, but there are certainly emerging learnings from an increasing body of case studies in this area. The first point that needs to be recognised is the need for high level political commitment, government level commitment to upgrading slum areas, for example. We give some examples of initiatives of that type, like the slum improvement project in India in the 1980s and 1990s, the special planning area of Mukuru in Nairobi, the low-income area of Chamanculo in Maputo, there are a number of examples where that commitment has been to an integrated approach to upgrading those areas. Slum upgrading then needs to be integrated within citywide strategic planning, so there needs to be recognition of the need to formalise and upgrade these slum areas. But that shouldn’t be approached in isolation, that needs to be incorporated within wider city level plans. We talk about placing urban development departments at the centre of urban sanitation service planning, so when you’re looking at that longer-term planning, not just approaching that through the lens of the sanitation service authority, but also incorporating the inputs of urban planning departments. Community participation, I think it’s a really clear insight from the work in Mukuru, one of the largest ever slum-upgrading projects in Sub-Saharan Africa. There was a huge level of community consultation around the upgrades that were planned, and I think that’s an insight that will certainly apply across contexts, that need for community participation in these urban development processes.

The other recommendation that we make in the report is around integrated funding — so funders, IFIs, foundations that are putting large levels of finance into the sector, they have a very important role to play in recognising this need to integrate sanitation with urban development and then reflecting that in the way they package their funding.

One of the recommendations touches on data and monitoring. Considering that, how important is the development and adoption of new technologies and digital tools?

Sam Drabble – We have inputs in the report from GSMA, who are at the forefront in terms of their research around technological innovation. To some extent, the technology is there. When you’re looking at data management systems, I don’t think technology is the fundamental barrier to be addressed. We talk in the report around digitisation and how a number of utilities in Kenya and elsewhere – and this has been accelerated through Covid – have introduced new digital systems and are now moving towards cashless payments through mobile money. There have been real steps forward on that front, but what is needed now is building the capacity of the service authorities to manage those technologies at scale. Similarly, we need to build the capacity of service authorities to collect and maintain and report data, and to connect with statistical offices at the national level, so that data is feeding into national level planning, reporting and policy making. I would say the first-level issue at this stage is around ensuring that adequate financial resources are allocated to developing these data systems, developing the human resources, developing institutional buy-in and the skills to implement these technologies. The technologies are there to drive improvements and we need to focus on supporting institutions to adopt them.

Connection of a pipe into the main sewer line in Githima, city of Nakuru, Kenya

Another important aspect of the report of wastewater reuse. Is there still a taboo involving the reuse of wastewater and faecal sludge? What would be the secret to create a truly circular economy around sanitation?

Sam Drabble – I connect the first part of the question to regulation. I’m not sure the issue of wastewater reuse is a taboo or social stigma. Actually, wastewater reuse is already quite widespread in many contexts. We give the example of Hanoi City and the surrounding region, where there are 700,000 farmers who are irrigating using wastewater. The challenge in taking that to greater scale and also ensuring that it delivers good outcomes is on the regulatory side. There needs to be effective environmental regulation, the standards need to be in place and need to be enforced and there need to be institutional frameworks that support the development and application of those standards. There will be other cities where the potential of reusing wastewater is perhaps not yet acknowledged. You can reuse wastewater for recreation, for industrial cooling, for irrigation. You can even then take one step further and convert wastewater into potable water, but that requires a higher level of treatment and also a level of finance that is challenging in low-income contexts. But it’s a possibility perhaps for further down the line.

On faecal sludge, I think taboo is a strong word, but there are still perhaps some reservations around reusing faecal sludge, and certainly more needs to be done to unlock the potential in that area. But, again, I would make the case that it begins on the regulatory side. This is a core recommendation of the report, that we should recognise the potential of valorising wastewater and faecal sludge, but we should not get ahead of ourselves and promote these practices when we haven’t got, in some countries, the regulations in place to ensure it is done safely. We need to get the sequencing right, but we also need to be making the economic case in terms of the potential that reuse has in supporting the circular economy.

This, of course, becomes even more of a pressing issue with climate change. How is climate change making this conversation about sanitation in the urban environment even more urgent?

Sam Drabble – I think urbanisation and climate change are two defining issues of our time. The challenge around climate change is essentially one of water. It’s too much water leading to flooding, extreme weather events which could lead to overflow of pit latrines and septic tanks, lead to huge challenges in terms of drainage, lead to the disuse of large-scale infrastructure, like wastewater treatment plants. We talk in the report about how many treatment plants are already inactive for various reasons, globally, and with climate change there is a real risk that will only be accelerated, because of these challenges particularly around extreme weather events and flooding and high-intensity frequent rainfall. Then, there is the counterpoint, which is not enough water and issues of drought. Again, that has real implications for sanitation, but there are innovations that we spotlight as having real potential in that area. We reference container-based sanitation as a waterless technology, which is still relatively small scale in global terms currently but is a service-delivery approach that has potential in water-scarce contexts. Absolutely, we need to recognise that those parameters around too much water or too little water, depending on the context, will influence the sanitation technology that needs to be adopted.

Another very clear example of how this challenge is playing out is in sewered systems. Globally there is, in many cities, quite a high prevalence of combined sewers, in which stormwater and domestic wastewater are combined in one piped network. Because of the increasing levels of rainfall, we’re seeing that infrastructure is no longer fit for purpose. We’re seeing in the UK, for example, the overflows and the discharge of untreated wastewater into the sea, an issue now in the news, and part of that stems from combined sewer systems. In the report, we correlate the type of sewer system in place and the level of rainfall in the cities in the global sample, and we see a number of cities where there is a high level of rainfall, but still combined sewer systems in place. Arguably, that is not the most appropriate solution in those contexts, and there are a number of cities looking at this now, looking at separating out stormwater from wastewater. This point around combined and separate sewer systems is a really clear illustration of the types of changes that may need to be made, and made very soon, to respond effectively to climate change.

The question we need to be asking is: with urban migration and the proliferation of informal settlements and slum settlements in low-income countries, combined with the realities of climate change – increased rainfall or water scarcity – what sanitations options are going to be sustainable within that context.

Read more about the report on the UN-Habitat webiste

Top image: waste in the community of Mirpur, in Dhaka, Bangladesh

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