What do you mean when you say it’s ‘safely managed’?: urban sanitation in the SDG era


The word ‘safe’ has taken on new life with its entry to the global development discourse on Goal 6 in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and is particularly important for urban sanitation. Goal 6.2 asks for achievement of universal access to ‘safely managed’ sanitation. This is a critical evolution from the narrower MDG target, but there are some potential pitfalls we need to be aware of from the outset.

So what exactly does ‘safe’ and ‘safely managed’ mean? We instantaneously all think we understand. But do we? To some ‘safe’ means that domestic waste won’t hurt us, as humans, in terms of infection and disease. To others it means it won’t impact on the environment or might be safely recovered or re-used. And, in either of these cases, it isn’t quite so simple to define what ‘avoiding harm’ – to either humans or the environment – actually means in practice.

SDG target 6.2, under the Joint Monitoring Program (JMP), considers excreta that has undergone ‘some basic level of treatment’ as ‘safely managed’ sanitation (WHO/UNICEF 2017, p.32). To be deemed ‘safely managed’, besides a toilet not being shared with other households, it must meet one of three criteria: (i) toilet is connected to septic tank or pit and the excreta remain stored, treated and disposed of in situ; (ii) toilet is connected to a septic tank or pit and this is emptied and treated offsite; or (iii) wastewater is treated offsite.

This definition has simplicity, which is critical for global monitoring, but unfortunately may also result in misleading policymakers’ and practitioners’ understanding of what is ‘safe’ from both a public health and environmental perspective. There are three key reasons why, in the context of urban areas that the JMP definition may not mean that the situation is ‘safe’.

Firstly, many septic tanks, pits or initial ‘containment’ – as they are often referred to – are not properly constructed, leakage of the liquid effluent is common, as is its disposal directly into open drains. The division of pathogens between the sludge and the effluent is unclear, but effluent inevitably carries remaining viable pathogens. The leakage may or may not be problematic in that the soil it leaks into may or may not help remove or inactivate the disease-causing pathogens and stop them from entering shallow groundwater, which may be used for domestic purposes like washing, bathing, dishwashing, cleaning teeth or drinking. Equally, disposal into drains depends on if and how children or adults may be exposed to that water. Either way, it is clear that toilets defined as ‘safely managed’ under the first or second criteria above may not actually be ‘safe’ in practice.

Secondly, for toilets meeting the second criteria, the sludge which is emptied from the tank may or may not be disposed of in a safe manner. For instance, sanitary workers removing or treating the sludge may be exposed to pathogens, resulting in potential exposure and associated risk. Again, we cannot assume it is ‘safe’.

Thirdly, offsite treatment of wastewater assumes that the quality of sewers is good and that there is no leakage or overflow of waste into other waterways, which in fact can be common, and which can then have pathways to human exposure or environmental impacts. In addition, the JMP definition under Target 6.2 for safe offsite treatment is “at least secondary treatment” (UN Water 2018). Secondary treatment may achieve “safe treatment” from an environmental perspective, however it is unlikely that pathogens are adequately reduced. These pathogens may still pose a significant health risk for downstream users, including those involved in sludge re-use in agriculture, or bathing and recreation in relevant waterways.

These challenges are not a reason not to have a global monitoring system with standardised definitions. We do need this. However, for the reasons mentioned above, it does mean that the use of this monitoring system needs to be accompanied by increased communication on what it can and can’t tell you. We also need to exert care in the case that the monitoring system creates incentives to implement solutions that will show ‘progress’ in the monitoring instrument, but that in reality may not actually render the situation more ‘safe’ in practice. Further work and combined emphasis on Target 6.3 (untreated wastewater) may also assist.

WHO and UNICEF, 2018. JMP Methodology 2017 Update and SDG Baselines. Geneva: WHO.
UN Water, 2018. Sustainable Development Goal 6 Synthesis Report on Water and Sanitation Draft – 2nd May 2018.

About the Authors
Professor Juliet Willetts is Research Director at University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures (UTS: ISF) and leads applied research to inform policy and practice in water and sanitation in the Asia-Pacific. Her contributions cover work on institutional, governance and policy settings, private sector engagement, gender equality, and monitoring and evaluation in rural and urban contexts.

Freya Mills is a specialist in water and sanitation, with a background in Civil Engineering and Masters of Water Resource Engineering and Management. Freya’s career spans International Development Banks, NGOs, research institutes and private consulting firms. She's worked for extended periods in Indonesia, Nepal, Samoa, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Australia.

Photo by Aidan Dockery for SNV.