A tale of clean cities: Strong local leadership key to solving urban sanitation challenge

Providing sanitation services to the urban poor is not an easy task, but new research by WaterAid shows that strong leadership is the key factor.

two toilets in the philippines
Proper sanitation means a well-kept latrine (left) as opposed to a primitive pit (right), and benefits the entire community. Image: Overseas Development Institute, CC BY-NC 2.0

A staggering 54 per cent of the global population now live in urban areas, and city infrastructure is struggling to keep up in many countries, leaving millions without access to clean water and toilets and dramatically increasing the risk of disease.

Uncontrolled urbanisation is putting a major strain on city planners to extend drinking water and sanitation services to all. Providing sanitation services to the urban poor is not an easy task, but new research from WaterAid shows that it can be done.

The report A tale of clean cities: insights for planning urban sanitation from Ghana, India and The Philippines, released this week, explores three success stories to understand ‘what works’ when tackling the urban sanitation challenge.

There is no one-size-fits-all measure when it comes to ensuring sustainable sanitation services, but one common feature in the three cities studied – Visakhapatnam (India), Kumasi (Ghana) and San Fernando (the Philippines) – is the vital role of strong local leadership, be it from the mayor or the head of the waste management department.

When these people make sanitation their priority, cities can make significant strides in ensuring access to services for all urban dwellers. The research also found that financing opportunities were also critical in order to translate these efforts into action.

Leadership and priority enabled these cities to explore innovative solutions to deliver sanitation; from pay-per-use public toilets, to public campaigns on cleanliness to create tourist-friendly spaces, and from decentralised sanitation wastewater treatment to centralised pit-emptying services.

Unless all city dwellers have adequate sanitation services, there will be a risk for each and every citizen’s health

Reflecting on why these cities decided to put sanitation at the top of their agenda, we observed different drivers that all speak to an aspirational vision of a clean city, be it to boost commercial competitiveness or tourism, or for the pride and recognition attached to cleanliness.

Interestingly, although rapid urbanisation poses huge challenges, at the same time the pressure it causes can also trigger change, driving demand for services to be provided. The same happens with crises, such as outbreaks of disease, which tend to result in a spike of demand and political priority.

These cities were very successful, when compared to other cities in developing countries, but findings also showed uneven progress along the different links of the sanitation chain. For instance, there was generally a bias towards sewers, while those using pit latrines lacked adequate support services, such as pit emptying.

Another worrying shortfall identified is that the needs of the urban poor were rarely a top priority. If we are serious about the Sustainable Development Goals and the aspiration of sanitation services reaching everyone everywhere by 2030, we need to make sure the poor and most excluded people are included in these initiatives.

A good way to do so is to highlight the need for universal access: unless all city dwellers have adequate sanitation services, there will be a risk for each and every citizen’s health.

The research explored the role of city sanitation planning, which some donors now consider a pre-condition before financially supporting cities. It was observed that the plans developed are rarely put into practice line by line, and do not offer a silver bullet.

However, the process of developing a plan is still important as it can help improve collaboration among departments, raise awareness and create a shared vision of where the city wants to be in the future. To be effective planning must be adapted to the specific context and phase of sanitation development, and be linked to financing opportunities.

To find out more about the three cities’ sanitation solutions and the lessons we can take from them, take a look at the report.


Andrés Hueso is senior policy analyst for sanitation at WaterAid. This story is published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org

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