Urban Sanitation Services and Waiting for Godot

As IWA release an updated Sanitation21 document, IWA Programmes Director Tom Williams talks about the urgent need to catalyse significant new thinking and planning for urban sanitation services.

A recent publication from the Water and Sanitation Programme “the Missing Link in Sanitation Service Delivery A Review of Fecal Sludge Management in 12 Cities” (April 2014) highlighted a prevailing status in a number of towns and cities in low and middle income countries that sewers are the answer to the urban sanitation conundrum. In the meantime, whilst policy makers, planners and citizens wait for this silver-bullet, the challenge of managing fecal sludge is woefully addressed. And it will get worse.

The majority of the World’s urban populations are not served by sanitation systems that provide both a sustained and affordable service to households and manage residual wastes adequately so as to protect public health and environmental systems. Wastewaters from more than 5.3 billion people (80% of the global population) have no form of treatment prior to discharge which results in major impacts on the quality of water resources creating a major environmental catastrophe and impacting upon downstream cities, industrial processes, ecosystems and food production.

The current poor state and future outlook of urban sanitation, including wastewater treatment, forms a tremendous and unprecedented challenge. This situation would be severe enough without the fact that 800,000 new urban residents are added every week to cities around the world over the next 40 years. Importantly, the majority of this urban population growth will not only occur in mega-cities, as many might think, but also importantly in smaller cities and towns. Rapid urbanisation means that many households do not connect to the municipal system because either they:

  1. live outside of the area served by the formal system;
  2. live in illegal settlements and are denied connections to public services;
  3. are unable to pay service charges; or
  4. are unwilling to pay because they already have some form of sanitation.

The need for a new approach towards planning for improved sanitation services in low and middle-income countries is required to respond to the inadequacies of conventional master planning approaches which have paid insufficient attention to:

  • Equitable service delivery requirements for low-income and informal settlements, which often need arrangements that differ from the mainstream services for the rest of the city.
  • The important role of the private sector in sanitation service provision, notably small-scale entrepreneurs (both informal and formal).
  • The potential benefits of alternative, innovative approaches for service delivery to overcome physical, financial or institutional constraints.
  • The need to ensure that there is sufficient demand to pay for services and cost recovery to pay for operation and maintenance costs.
  • Capacity building requirements required for ensuring that facilities and infrastructure are adequately managed and maintained.

In addressing these needs, over the last 8 years, IWA has developed the Sanitation21 approach. In 2006, the publication: “Sanitation21 – Simple Approaches to Complex Sanitation: A Draft Framework for Analysis” recognised that successful sanitation planning activities need to be based on a sound understanding of the existing situation and respond to demand from an improved sanitation service at different levels – from the household level to the municipal authorities. In 2014, this approach has been updated and encapsulates experiences in sanitation planning, particularly from those from India and Indonesia, to ground the conceptual framework into reality. The newly published Sanitation21 approach aims to achieve the following:

  • A vision of the need for sanitation improvements which is shared between different stakeholders within the city.
  • A clear definition of realistic priorities for improvement across the entire city.
  • A comprehensive sanitation development plan that corresponds to users’ demands and different physical and socio-economic conditions within the city.

Game changing thinking and action coping with the current lack of sanitation and the increasing demands will require game changing thinking, experience based knowledge and action. We can no longer continue with poorly targeted programmes, under investments, lack of awareness of existing alternatives and insufficient innovation.

We need to come up with significantly new thinking and practices about safe, efficient and affordable solutions for sanitation in low and middle income cities and their surrounding areas. There are no silver bullets to this enormous challenge. Innovation will come through working within a mosaic of opportunities and constraints tailoring solutions to local conditions and opportunities. Waiting for sewers will be like waiting for Godot.

Read more in Sanitation 21 report


  1. Significant work in producing the Sanitation21 approach was undertaken by previous employees of IWA Dr. Darren Saywell and Dr Jonathan Parkinson.
  2. Waiting for Godot is an absurdist play by Samuel Beckett, in which two characters wait endlessly and in vain for the arrival of someone named Godot.