The United Nations sustainable development goals (SDGs) have given a new impetus for cities to be inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable (SDG11), ensure citizens’ health and wellbeing (SDG3) and secure access to sustainable water and sanitation services (SDG6). World Toilet Day on November 19th is an opportunity to remind ourselves of a few facts and propose a set of guiding principles for a renewed and revitalized urban sanitation agenda.

Many cities struggle to deal with the most basic municipal task of managing human excreta. Urban population growth continuously outpaces gains in improved sanitation access. Globally, nearly one billion people live in urban slums with poor or no sanitation, and only 26 percent of urban excreta is deemed to be safely managed. Environmental degradation is one result. Endemic disease leads to mortality and morbidity, especially among children, poor school attendance and performance, low productivity, constraints on the delivery of essential urban services such as housing, transport, safe water and drainage, and ultimately limits on economic growth and urban development. In short, a silent crisis that impedes the realization of the urban transformation framed in SDG11.

Urban sanitation has a fundamental role to play in achieving the SDG goals identified above. Business as usual operates at too small a scale and focuses on infrastructure alone rather than on city-wide solutions. What is required is a radical shift in mindsets and practices towards an urban sanitation approach that impacts political priorities, funding, planning, design, management and governance.

This radical shift will require the engagement of all stakeholders and a political transformation that touches all citizens, rich and poor, informal and formal, to facilitate the rollout of universal urban sanitation services. This is critical not only for reasons of equity and the human right to sanitation, but also because the consequences of inadequate sanitation eventually affect everyone, as excreta-related pathogens spread easily across dense urban environments.

To make progress, urban development professionals and stakeholders need to better understand how sanitation impacts the functions and form of the city and how it supports economic development and promotes equity. To achieve sustainable, equitable and safe management of excreta for the whole city, sanitation sector professionals must transform their thinking and practices to deploy both old and new solutions in smarter ways.

We need to come together as a professional community to galvanize this agenda by sharing conversations globally and mobilizing contributions from decision-makers and other practitioners across disciplines. Such a renewed urban sanitation agenda should aim to:

  • Embed sanitation within the framework of urban governance and municipal services provision;
  • Establish clear roles and responsibilities, with accountability and transparency;
  • Provide safe management of excreta throughout the sanitation chain – for both onsite sanitation and sewers – to ensure separation of fecal contamination from people across the whole city;
  • Focus on outcomes rather than technologies – allowing for diversity of solutions and approaches;
  • Base decisions on secure operational budgets being available (including for operation and maintenance);
  • Facilitate progressive realization, building on what is already in place;
  • Commit resources to training city leaders and technicians of the future to solve complex problems rather than deliver predetermined solutions.

On this year’s World Toilet Day, I invite you to consider your own practice in responding to this shared responsibility.

Originally published 11.21.2017

Author: Darren Saywell