Sanitation could be the catalyst for sustainable development

Amid World Water Week, authors from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), Sarah Dickin, Kim Andersson and Caspar Trimmer, write on the crucial role that sanitation can play in sustainable development.

Access to decent sanitation is often a matter of life and death. And according to the World Bank, the costs associated with inadequate water supply and sanitation – in health, lost productivity, environmental damage, lost tourist revenue and many more – are around US$260 billion annually. This is hardly news. So why, amid all the progress of the past 15 years and more, are billions of people still unable to access adequate sanitation?

It is telling that while combating disease, and especially infant mortality, remains a high-profile aim of global development efforts, the most cost-effective way of doing so – safe sanitation and wastewater management – is rarely mentioned in the same breath, let alone the same budget discussions. The latest UN-Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water reports that water and sanitation together comprise just 6.1% of total development aid commitments, putting them behind health, education, transport, energy, government and civil society, and agriculture sectors. Only a quarter of the water and sanitation commitments are for sanitation.

The fact is that sanitation and wastewater management just don’t have the appeal for many decision-makers or investors and as one result, they tend to lose out when there’s any question of a trade-off of funding or time; who wants to cut the ribbon on a new sewage treatment plant, when they could do the same on a new hospital, nature reserve or highway?

Forget the trade-offs, look at the synergies

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) did a lot for sanitation coverage, but far from enough – ‘halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to . . . basic sanitation’ was one of the most notably missed targets. There are several reasons to hope that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – will have greater success in promoting sanitation.

One reason is that the SDGs put so much emphasis on interactions and interlinkages between different development areas. It is no longer so much about deciding between two competing priorities as about working out how to best serve both at the same time.

Looking at these interactions, as we have been in the SEI Initiative on Sustainable Sanitation (SISS), it’s clear that the right approaches to sanitation – especially when they include productive reuse of resources that end up in sanitation waste – offer a wide array of win-win solutions. The graphic below, which comes from the new SEI-UNEP book Sanitation, Wastewater Management and Sustainability,* shows how ‘sustainable sanitation’ can bring no fewer than 32 of the SDG targets closer. These targets are in areas as diverse as education, employment, environmental protection, climate change, gender equity and nutrition.


To take this idea further, we could examine these interactions in specific contexts in more depth. The seven-point scale for mapping interactions across the SDGs, presented in the journal Nature by SEI Research Director Måns Nilsson and colleagues, might well be useful here.

Another principle of the SDGs and the wider Agenda 2030 is that development today should not compromise the well-being of future generations. This argues strongly for acting now to prevent the environmental and societal damage resulting from open defecation and inadequate sanitation and wastewater management. It also supports the idea of investing in genuinely sustainable systems from the get-go, instead of rushing to put in place toilets for the sake of “access”, with little regard for whether they are socially acceptable, resilient to flooding, properly managed and financed, or even fulfil the basic functions of keeping untreated excreta out of the human and natural environment.

From waste streams to revenue streams

If the societal costs of poor sanitation access have not convinced decision-makers to invest in the past (along with the strong evidence that such investments pay for themselves several times over), then a focus on resource recovery and productive reuse might just tip the balance. Reclaiming the water, energy, nutrients and organic matter in excreta, wastewater and other organic waste, can go beyond societal savings to generate direct revenues, radically altering the investment case.

For example, a case study in Kampala, Uganda, showed that fuel briquettes made from the sewage and organic solid waste generated in the city could replace almost all of the firewood used in the city (where 78% of the population relies on firewood for cooking). This provides a rock-solid argument for improving sanitation access and waste management, and could also create a new business sector with a potentially marketable product. At the same time, it would slow the rapid deforestation linked to woodfuel use, and turn a health and ecological liability – organic waste – into a sustainable, renewable energy source. This calculation was made using REVAMP, a new tool being developed within SISS.

Similarly, the safe reuse of treated excreta in smallholder farms in Niger has already generated additional yields, representing improved food security and increased annual income of approximately US$450 per family.

Improved sanitation services also mean more business opportunities and the creation of green jobs. In India the increased investment required for attaining improved sanitation has an estimated new business market value of US$152 billion per year.

Learn more

These co-benefits, and the place of sustainable sanitation in broader sustainable development are the topic of an SEI session at World Water Week, on Thursday 1 September: ‘Understanding Sustainable Sanitation as the Cornerstone of Sustainable Development’. They are also discussed in depth in the new UNEP-SEI publication Sanitation, Wastewater Management and Sustainability: from Waste Disposal to Resource Recovery .

*Andersson, K., Rosemarin, A., Lamizana, B., Kvarnström, E., McConville, J., Seidu, R., Dickin, S., Trimmer, C. (2016). Sanitation, Wastewater Management and Sustainability: from Waste Disposal to Resource Recovery , UNEP/GPA and SEI.

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