Solving urban challenges with Citywide Inclusive Sanitation

Article | 7 April 2021

Sanitation for all may be enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 6.2), but achieving this target will require a change from business as usual approaches.

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has highlighted the critical importance of water, sanitation, and adequate hygiene services (WASH) as the primary line of defense against the spread of COVID-19 as well as waterborne diseases.

Unfortunately, the hygiene needed to combat disease is a challenge for the 300 million people in Asia and the Pacific who lack access to a safe water supply, and the 1.2 billion who cannot access basic sanitation services. Further, in the region, some 453 million people still defecate in the open. In the current COVID 19 crisis, such poor sanitation exacerbates the difficulty of quarantining and maintaining social distance, and contributes to the spread of the virus.

Sanitation for all may be enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 6.2), but achieving this target will require a change from business as usual approaches.

Sanitation challenge in cities

In Asia’s ever expanding cities, for example, higher population densities and urban expansion make managing the vast amounts of human waste ever more challenging. By 2030, more than 55% of the region’s population will live in urban areas. Lack of sanitation can have significant impacts on city and national economies, affecting public health, productivity, competitiveness, real estate values, and the overall quality of life.

“Governments and their development partners need to radically rethink their approach and investment priorities for sanitation”

Neeta Pokhrel, Chief of Water Sector Group, ADB

“Governments and their development partners need to radically rethink their approach and investment priorities for sanitation,” says Neeta Pokhrel, Chief of the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) Water Sector Group. “All people need to have access to adequate and reliable sanitation infrastructure, and they need to use it in order to achieve the maximum economic returns on sanitation project investments. Sanitation services also need to be sustained—financially, environmentally, and technically.”

ADB, its clients, and key development partners have invested immense resources in urban sanitation programs. From 2011 to 2020, the total ADB sanitation portfolio amounted to $4.9 billion, with the largest share invested in South Asia, followed by in East Asia. ADB plans to sustain this support to its developing members and contribute to achieving SDG 6 with commitments in water and sanitation services that are programmed to reach more than $6 billion up to 2022.

But despite considerable investments, several issues have held back progress on sanitation services in cities. This includes the lack of capacity at the local or municipality level to operate and maintain sewerage systems and wastewater treatment plants, which are also linked to other underlying issues such as poor design or inappropriate technology choices, lack of finance for operation and maintenance, and low political priority.

Moreover, most investments have been for centralized wastewater treatment and sewerage, which often do not serve newer or informal settlements. Extending such sewer systems to low income and informal settlements can be challenging, costly, and may not be the most suitable and effective for the local context.

“Sanitation services for the poor and those living in informal settlements are often badly built and managed or they may have no sanitation infrastructure at all,” says Coral Fernadez Illescas, an ADB Principal Water Resources Specialist. “Sometimes, the solution is not necessarily conventional sanitation. Cities can opt for on-site or non-networked sanitation systems that not only address access but also prioritize safety and health risks, combined with behavior change campaigns that creates awareness on the importance of sanitation and hygiene.”

Citywide Inclusive Sanitation

Citywide Inclusive Sanitation (CWIS) is an evolving concept to more effectively meet the sanitation challenges in the world’s growing urban areas. It builds on current sanitation technologies and good practices to achieve more comprehensive, effective, and sustainable sanitation services in cities.

CWIS programs have the following characteristics:

  • They are evidence-based; implementation and design adaptation are driven by health, social, economic outcomes.
  • Institutional arrangements, accountability and regulations, with aligned incentives, are established for management, operation and maintenance of the whole sanitation service chain.
  • They include a mix of diverse technical approaches that build on existing sewered and non-sewered sanitation systems, and incorporate resource recovery and re-use where feasible.
  • City leaders demonstrate political will to prioritize investment in sanitation, technical and managerial leadership, and arrange long-term funding for sustainability.
  • Non-infrastructure aspects of service delivery are funded, including capacity building, household outreach and engagement, and sanitation marketing.
  • Complementary urban services including water supply, drainage, greywater management and solid waste management are integrated with sanitation planning.
  • Activities and funding target unserved and underserved groups including women, minorities, informal settlements, people with disabilities.

“Citywide Inclusive Sanitation addresses the entire sanitation service chain from access to toilets to treatment and disposal or reuse”

Christian Walder, Water Supply and Sanitation Specialist, ADB

Institutions may need to be restructured to accommodate a CWIS-driven strategy. Systems and incentives for decision makers and operators also need to be in place to monitor sanitation service performance and allow strategic and tactical changes to optimize performance and service delivery.

“CWIS addresses the entire sanitation service chain from access to toilets to treatment and disposal or reuse,” says Christian Walder, ADB Water Supply and Sanitation Specialist. “It’s linked to solid waste management, drainage, water supply, land-use management and housing, and should be planned and managed in a coordinated and integrated way. And fundamentally, it means including all citizens, rich and poor alike, living in formal and informal settlements, both at home and away from home in the city.”

Online ADB Sanitation Dialogue 2021

CWIS was the topic of the Online ADB Sanitation Dialogue 2021, a platform for sanitation practitioners, government agencies and decision-makers to discuss the strategies that will lead to systemic change on sanitation. This is the fourth edition of the Dialogue, with the last version held in 2014.

This article was written by Graham Dwyer, Principal Communications Specialist at ADB's Department of Communications.