Five years into the SDGs’ implementation and where are the ambitious commitments required to ensure that the 2030 Agenda, including sanitation (SDG 6), will become a reality for everyone across the globe? Fewer than 10 years remain to take urgent action nationally and globally to end open defecation and provide access to sanitation and hygiene for all (SDG 6.2), as well as ensure that all people can live in dignity and see their human rights fulfilled. The big questions are how did we get there, where do billions of people lack access to safely managed sanitation? And what is not working?
Governments have agreed on monitoring this target through indicator SDG 6.2.1a, “Proportion of population using safely managed sanitation services, including a handwashing facility with soap and water”, which is more relevant than ever in the current pandemic situation. The current level of materialization towards the sanitation target varies widely across regions, with Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Northern Africa and Western Asia lagging significantly behind.
A new paradigm is needed that asks the water community to change how we manage and finance water and sanitation to achieve water security
According to UNICEF and WHO, 4.2 billion people do not have safely managed sanitation services, which presents a constant source of stress and illness for those communities. Inadequate sanitation cannot be an option, as it leads to public health problems, poverty, lack of education, lack of opportunity and gender inequality. Globally, 80% of wastewater flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused, contributing to a situation where around 1.8 billion people use a source of drinking water contaminated with faeces, putting them at risk of contracting cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio.
Just like regional and local disparities that do not appear in global numbers, significant differences exist between the rich and the poor across the globe. A UNICEF and WHO report on the inequalities (Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene 2000-2017: Special focus on inequalities) tell us that in 2017, seven out of ten people who did not have access to even basic sanitation services lived in rural areas and one out of three lived in the Least Developed Countries. Less than one in three countries where open defecation was practiced were on track to achieve near elimination and only one in five to do so for the poorest rural quintile of the population.
We know that underinvestment in both infrastructure and capacity, weak and rigid governance systems, and lack of accountability are among the major reasons for the lack of adequate progress. However, the fact that, in a rapidly changing world, we are still solving new problems with old solutions demonstrates that our experience can be our worst enemy. We are still investing in linear systems, a “big pipes in and big pipes out” transfer model, which aims to protect public health and avoid nuisance impacts using large-scale technological solutions for narrowly defined service problems; we are working in silos; our policies are set without aligning national objectives with the required resources; we are still counting on public funds that are insufficient and poorly targeted; the new sources of finance for water and sanitation are constrained by regulatory, institutional and high-risk profiles of many investments; creditworthiness of public utilities is weak; and our ambitious strategies for sanitation are developed with little consideration for how or by whom they will be implemented, nor how they will be financed.
Solving sanitation problems requires creativity and innovation to turn risks into opportunities, providing fit for purpose solutions
The status quo is no longer enough, and this model will not deliver on the water and sanitation targets by 2030. SDG 6 sets the performance bar higher than the millennium development goal (MDG 7C) by shifting the target from basic sanitation to safely managed sanitation, which makes achieving sanitation security much harder.
A new paradigm is therefore needed that turns this approach on its head and asks the water community to change the way we manage and finance water and sanitation to achieve water security for sustainable development. It is crucial to shift from ad hoc and isolated wastewater solutions (such as one treatment plant per municipality) to fully integrated river basin planning approaches, which yield more sustainable and resilient systems. It is not only about money; solving serious sanitation problems requires creativity and innovation to turn risks into opportunities, providing fit for purpose solutions, and changing the financing mechanisms of water, providing strong governmental leadership and accountability, as well as recognizing the role of communities, acknowledging multiple knowledge cultures, and accepting the inevitability of uncertainty.
Woman collecting water from a hand pump. Site visit to potential partner ORDA. Achefar, Ethiopia. Credit: Heather Arney. Waterdotorg / Flickr
Framework for achieving water security in a challenging climate
Framing the challenges of water security goes beyond single-issue indicators such as water stress, water quality, or access to water and sanitation, to focus more on holistic thinking about community’s demands and expectations. There is growing recognition of the role that fragility and conflict can play in aggravating water insecurity; infrastructure may be seriously deteriorated, and institutions may be weakened to the point where service providers are unable to provide basic water services and incapable of managing water related hazards, resulting in riots, migration, and loss of livelihoods.
Achieving water security is like solving a Rubik’s cube. When attempting to solve a Rubik’s cube most people pick a colour and complete one face of the cube before moving on to the next. While this approach is fun, it is ultimately doomed to fail, because addressing the needs of one side of the cube causes the remaining five to be thrown into chaos. The same goes for solving the challenges of water security.
Actions by governments and the international community are only part of the solution to solve the most serious water challenges
To achieve urban water security and sustainable water management, we need collective actions to implement the integrated framework of DECS (drinking water and human beings (D), ecosystems (E), climate change and water-related hazards (C), and socio-economic factors (S)). More is needed to enhance the role of the private sector and civil society. Actions by governments and the international community are only part of the solution to solve the most serious water challenges. Under an effective policy and regulatory framework, the private sector could play a greater role in supplying cost effective and quality water services, as well as in harnessing and developing new technologies that enhance water security. Civil society, academia, and the media also have important contributions to make. Much greater public information is needed to educate people about the availability of water resources and the costs and consequences of water use and practices.
Source: Abeolnga, et.al
CARROT framework to achieve a paradigm shift in sanitation and water reuse
Coherence and Capacity Development
Policy coherence is an important tool towards 'transformative sanitation development’ and to incentivize the transition from the very clunky centralised setups into decentralised systems with a circular economy approach. The lack of supportive and coherent legal and institutional frameworks for water reuse is a major barrier, preventing a wider practice in many countries beyond pilot schemes. Water and sanitation are typically treated as two separate systems, while they are both integral parts of one system: the water cycle. This means breaking out of institutional and policy silos to fully realise the benefits of synergistic actions, identifying unintended negative consequences of policies, and effectively managing unavoidable trade-offs. SDG 6 takes into account the components of the water cycle but does not provide explicit policy or operational guidance on how to ensure an integrated and coherent implementation of the sanitation target as part of the whole water cycle or across the broad suite of SDGs.
Under an effective policy and regulatory framework, the private sector could play a greater role in cost effective and quality services
As many utilities lack technical or financial capacity for sanitation planning, capacity development for staff including sanitation workers, institutions and people are critical components of implementing the sanitation and WASH policies, strategies, and programs.
- Adaptive Solutions
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to sanitation services. Adaptive solutions of technical, policy measures and technology are critical for bridging the sanitation gap. Fit for purpose sanitation systems are based mainly on the purpose and nature of the system, whether onsite sanitation, centralised, decentralised or hybrid sanitation systems or a non-sewer system.
- Regulations and Institutional Framework
Access to safely managed sanitation for all may continue to be unattainable for low income countries for many years, which calls for governments to introduce policies that are conducive to new solutions. In the absence of a regulatory framework, wastewater is often used illegally and improperly in agriculture.
A legal framework for reuse should define clear and precise consent procedures, standards, and responsibilities, together with enforcement mechanisms. It should also address the competent institution’s responsibilities. In many countries, the laws and regulations governing water reuse are not detailed enough about reusing treated wastewater. Sectoral water legislation is often outdated. Even where adequate legislation is in place, monitoring and enforcement have proved to be a major barrier.
Raising Awareness and cross sector collaboration
Community engagement and cross sector collaboration are essential to achieve sanitation security. Wastewater reuse suffers from perception, cultural and religious barriers in many countries. Concerns in many countries in the MENA region regarding the rules of the faith or “fatwa” – an authoritative religious ruling – are a major impediment in wastewater reuse.
Changing the paradigm from risks to opportunities in sanitation relies on changing our mindset toward wastewater. Developing countries often discharge wastewater into watercourses as they lack the financial means and knowledge of technology that would lead to the economic benefits of having proper sanitation system and wastewater reuse. Wastewater is not something we should discharge into the environment and get rid of; we really have to change our perceptions and look at wastewater as a precious resource. Wastewater can help us meet the water demand, it has the necessary nutrients for fertilizers for food production, it has organic material that can be used for energy production to support energy security.
Technology and innovations
Many countries cannot afford expensive, complex solutions to operate wastewater treatment processes and should use appropriate technologies. These mean simple processes of proven technology, of low investment and O&M costs, simple to operate and with the capacity to yield any required quality.
The United Nations family has been underlining (WWDR 2017) “the importance of managing wastewater as an undervalued and sustainable source of water, energy, nutrients and other recoverable by-products, rather than something to be disposed of or a nuisance to be ignored”. The post-Covid era appears to be one that will be conducive to innovations, capacity development and solutions that can synergize with nature and are circular. Let us make it a reality!