Non-sewered sanitation: an overlooked yet critical component for sustainable sanitation services

This World Toilet Day, we’re spotlighting innovative and unconventional solutions to accelerate change and achieve universal access to sustainable sanitation services where it is most needed. As it emerged from the 1st IWA Conference on Non-Sewered Sanitation (NSS) recently held in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 16-18 October 2023, off-grid sanitation solutions can be a game changer for those still lacking access to safely managed sanitation. 

Millions of people around the world do not have proper sanitation facilities. The statistics are alarming: approximately 4.2 billion people, over half of the global population, lack access to safely managed sanitation. We have reached the halfway mark of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2030. However, progress has stagnated, is unevenly distributed between countries, and is inadequate to eliminate the inequalities to ensure that the most vulnerable are reached. Inadequate sanitation has far-reaching consequences, posing significant health risks, environmental pollution, ecosystem degradation, and human rights violations.  

According to a recent Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Report, achieving universal coverage by 2030 will require a sixfold increase in current rates of progress for safely managed drinking water, a fivefold increase for safely managed sanitation, and a threefold increase for basic hygiene services. The next seven years have been referred to as a sprint to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  

The next 20 years will be a golden age for wastewater and sanitation, now is the time for #SanitAction. This year’s World Toilet Day’s focus on Accelerating Change reminds us of the urgent need to speed up progress in ensuring access to safe and dignified sanitation for all. It provides an opportunity to highlight a global issue often overlooked but crucial for human well-being: sanitation. Adequate access to clean and safe sanitation facilities is a fundamental human right, a cornerstone of public health, and a catalyst for positive change in diverse aspects of life. 


The 1st IWA Conference on Non-Sewered Sanitation: A Game Changer 

The just concluded 1st IWA Non-Sewered Sanitation (NSS) Conference couldn’t have been more than timely as we take stock of the progress registered thus far towards achieving the SDGs, particularly SDG 6.2. It provided an opportunity to reflect on the sanitation service inequality that still plagues our world.

The NSS Conference offered the much-needed space for innovative thinking and discussions on off-grid solutions for sanitation, which are critically important to address the significant service delivery gaps not met by conventional centralised systems. What we’ve learned from the conference is that the status quo is not an option and 19th-century solutions won’t work anymore. As such, we need to rethink sanitation and move towards more off-grid, decentralised, and circular approaches.  

The topics discussed spanned from innovative technologies, financing models, governance, and capacity building to urban sanitation approaches including nature-based solutions, climate-resilient approaches, City-wide Inclusive Sanitation, and the fundamental role of research. The event offered a diverse group of delegates and a great line-up of distinguished speakers and experts who shared insights, experiences, and knowledge. The African Development Bank and African Water Facility shared insights  about the “Africa Urban Sanitation Investment Initiative (AUSII)” – a new sanitation-focussed financing window to support City Wide Inclusive Sanitation (CWIS) in Africa’s cities and urban areas. It is great to see increased and dedicated funding and investments towards sanitation, and such funds including the AUSII are needed to enhance the efforts of African governments to meet the targets of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for water and sanitation. In another workshop, a team of experts from the University of Technology Sydney – Institute for Sustainable Futures (UTS-ISF) and the University of South Florida, presented an innovative approach – ClimateFIRST – for designing climate-resilient non-sewered sanitation technologies. The approach involves a process that considers how climate-related hazards can affect sanitation technology and how the risks of these hazards can be reduced through technology design. 

The Role of Integrated Urban Services Planning in the Sanitation Revolution

It was also impressive to witness the participation of non-sanitation experts and stakeholders, particularly urban planners, housing, and development sector representatives, in such an exclusive sanitation event. This proves that sanitation is a critical component of and is intrinsically linked to water supply, wastewater, drainage, and solid waste management – all of which are critical service delivery components of urban planning and development. There is growing evidence and discussions supporting this, including the recently published reports by UN-Habitat on “Global Report on Sanitation and Wastewater Management in Cities and Human Settlements”; Advancements in and Integration of Water, Sanitation, and Solid Waste for Low- and Middle-Income Countries; To integrate or not to integrate? Water and waste as unified basic services; and IWA’s publication on Lessons Learnt: Regulating for CWIS. I would like to believe that we can only be able to fast-track progress in this second half of the SDG era if we deliberately adopt a more integrated, multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral approach to address the global sanitation challenges albeit the increasing effects of climate change and urbanisation. We need a paradigm shift to change the status quo – let’s stop speaking to ourselves as sanitation experts and involve all key stakeholders. 


Accelerating Change: The Global Acceleration Framework and SanitAction 

“Accelerating Change” suggests a sense of urgency and ambition. It encourages governments, organisations, and communities to step up their efforts.  

A ray of hope beams over the horizon – we have a starting point. The UN-Water has developed an SDG 6 Global Acceleration Framework: a unifying initiative designed to deliver fast results. The five accelerators (financing, governance, capacity development, innovation, and data and information) provide a valuable framework for achieving accelerated, coordinated progress on sanitation. Importantly, the five accelerators are cross-cutting and interdependent; work under one may overlap with others. The framework also requires a collaborative approach leveraging public-private partnerships. As many countries, cities, towns, and communities are at different levels of progress, the priority interventions will vary from context to context, thus the framework should be contextualised and localised. 

This World Toilet Day 2023 underscores the urgency and importance of addressing sanitation issues worldwide. It’s a call to action for governments, UN Agencies, civil society organisations, the private sector, academia and individuals to redouble their efforts to ensure that everyone, everywhere can enjoy their basic right to proper sanitation. Let’s unite in our efforts to accelerate change and achieve universal access to sustainable sanitation services. Join the SanitAction movement and be a part of the solution. Share your thoughts, ideas, and actions using #SanitAction and together, let’s leave no one behind in the pursuit of inclusive urban sanitation for all.

Florence Laker

Senior Officer - Inclusive Urban Sanitation (Consultant)
Florence is a water and sanitation professional with over 8 years of progressive career development and practical experience working in the WASH and health sectors with government and international non-governmental organisations, in both development ... Read full biography