What will it take to improve the financial planning of sanitation systems in cities?

Informal settlement in a fast-growing city in Bangladesh (Photo credit: SNV)

The health of cities is in crisis. Many city residents in low- and low-middle-income countries rely on on-site sanitation treatment. Often, they don't have arrangements for faecal sludge management. In areas where arrangements exist, many have either collapsed or are providing sub-par services.

Our research in five countries uncovered that the absence of proper business models and the stronghold of technocratic decisions are common threads that explain the reality of failed (or failing) systems.

As a result, though a community may have a treatment system nearby, it is not uncommon to find untreated human waste polluting local waterways, marginal lands, or open drains near people’s living spaces.

So, we asked ourselves, how can improvements in financial planning sustain our sanitation systems?

Here are three recommendations arising from our research.

Local governments must broaden their financial and business acumen in managing and monitoring sanitation. City authorities’ understanding of the financial realities and health of their sanitation systems was found to be severely limited. Few had a methodical process in place to document and store information on the financial resources and assets they already have (e.g., existing assets). Studies on future investment priorities, opportunities, and levels of service affordability were seldom conducted. There was no clarity about the financial requirements of initiating and sustaining the business. Poor expenditure tracking and annual planning in cities, coupled with weak performance monitoring service systems led to significant budget shortfalls.

Stakeholder meeting to raise sanitation financing for a city in Nepal

Stakeholder meeting to raise sanitation financing for a city in Nepal

Encourage more comprehensive sanitation system financing. The default solution to the on-site sanitation crisis is to pour more funds into infrastructure, e.g., treatment plants. This is not surprising. We live in a world that equates the ‘new, shiny, plenty, and visible’ to amazing results, progress, and impact. But the ‘new, shiny, plenty, and visible’ is not always what it seems.

Little thought (and investments!) is given to planning for the sustainable operations and maintenance of systems.

What we know is, building sanitation infrastructure is the easiest barrier to overcome. Often, the tendency has been to dismiss the hard talk. How to manage and sustain a system’s operations and maintenance, or grow the business, were questions often ignored. Such practice often led to systems failure.

SNV's Rajeev Munankami during the FSM7 conference in Abidjan (Photo Credit: SNV)

SNV's Rajeev Munankami posing hard questions at the FSM7 conference

Break away from technocratic and siloed planning approaches. We need a wide range of people from different disciplines to inform sanitation systems planning. Doing so facilitates the longevity and proper functioning of systems.

‘Beyond technical manuals, we urgently need to share the lived experiences of people operating wastewater and faecal sludge treatment systems to enable better-informed decision-making. Things don’t go to plan and there is much we can learn.’ – Juliette Willetts, UTS-ISF [2]

Sanitation workers are experts in the design of sustainable and safely managed sanitation (Photo credit: SNV)

Imagine a system informed by sanitation workers' practical knowledge

Operators who understand the nuts and bolts of various technologies and the how-to’s of professional service delivery can provide insight into what works from what don’t. Marketers and/or behavioural change communications experts can help grow the business. Diverse consumers can provide valuable input into the accessibility and affordability of services. As well as their perspectives on responsive and responsible customer service.

In some cities in Tanzania, Zambia, and Nepal, multi-stakeholder sanitation planning approaches are now facilitating informed choice processes. They're now building ownership over final decisions. In these areas, we're seeing a departure from an overemphasis on piped sewerage solutions. Diversification in options is making sure that all people can access a service. It is also driving business. Income-generating business models, such as faecal sludge reuse, are now being explored.

To conclude, it is important to realise that many sanitation systems were constructed with good intentions. But we must do better to prevent systems from collapsing. City authorities and relevant stakeholders need to gain the tools and know-how to develop healthy and financially sound business models.

As humanity races against the SDG 2030 clock – and not to mention, the debilitating impacts of climate effects – we must act now.

Banner photo: Informal settlement in a fast-growing city in Bangladesh that relies on onsite sanitation arrangements (Photo credit: SNV)

[1] Results from SNV's WASH SDG Programme Midline Survey 2021. Available upon request.
[2] Press release: SNV and ISF-UTS launch publication on sanitation treatment technologies | SNV

For more information, contact Rajeev Munankami, Multi-country Programme Manager, WASH SDG Programme by email.