Saturday, 2 August 2008

What is “Sustainable Sanitation”?

Someone asked me this on the ‘phone the other day, so I set about seeing what other people and organizations thought about this.

The 2003 WHO-IRC report Linking technology choice with operation and maintenance in the context of community water supply and sanitation defines sustainable water and sanitation as follows:

“A service is sustainable when:
■ It functions properly and is used.
■ It provides the services for which it was planned, including: delivering the required quantity and quality of water; providing easy access to the service; providing service continuity and reliability; providing health and economic benefits; and in the case of sanitation, providing adequate sanitation access.
■ It functions over a prolonged period of time, according to the designed life-cycle of the equipment.
■ The management of the service involves the community (or the community itself manages the system); adopts a perspective that is sensitive to gender issues; establishes partnerships with local authorities; and involves the private sector as required.
■ Its operation, maintenance, rehabilitation, replacement and administrative costs are covered at local level through user fees, or through alternative sustainable financial mechanisms.
■ It can be operated and maintained at the local level with limited, but feasible, external support (e.g. technical assistance, training and monitoring).
■ It has no harmful effects on the environment.”

The South African Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, in its May 2008 Position Paper Appropriate Technologies in the Water Sector in South Africa (draft, version 4), quotes this section of the WHO-IRC report and adds:

“Sustainability of a service is achieved when the community wants and accepts the level of service provided, is able to pay for it and the skills are available locally to service the system. It makes sound economic sense if the scheme can be managed locally, as it not only reduces the cost of running the scheme but also ensures that money is retained in the local area. In the case of an advanced technology, however, this may not be possible if operator skills are not available.”

It goes on to say:

“A sustainable sanitation service is generally understood to be a system that is affordable to the community and the local government over a long term period without having adverse effects on the environment. Thus:
pollution is reduced to a minimum and water resources are available for future generations; and
where affordability refers to the community and the local government’s ability to operate, maintain, extend and replace the infrastructure to obtain a reliable service.”

UN Water’s “IYS Flagship Publication” Tackling a Global Crisis: International Year of Sanitation 2008 doesn’t mention “sustainability” or “sustainable” at all. The 2008 WHO-UNICEF JMP report mentions “sustainable” a few times (e.g., “Millennium Development Goal 7 calls on countries to halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.”), but doesn’t attempt to define it.

The UN Millennium Task Force on Water & Sanitation’s 2005 report Health, dignity, and development: what will it take? has this to say:

“… sustainable access must be viewed from social, economic, and environmental perspectives. Access includes a physical dimension—for example, access to drinking water requires the existence of infrastructure in good working order—but also embraces a concept of use. Access to sanitation, for example, cannot be measured simply by whether a toilet is installed, but must also determine whether that toilet is working and used for safe disposal of excreta with improved hygienic practices. Otherwise, the contribution of the toilet itself to human health will be negligible or even negative. There are likewise two aspects of sustainability, a service aspect and an environmental aspect. In terms of service, sustainable access refers primarily to a type of service that is secure, reliable, and available for use on demand by users on a long-term basis. This is possible when there are credible arrangements to ensure a regular and reliable flow of adequate performance-determining resources—human, financial, institutional, and technical know-how, among others—needed to ensure proper functioning and satisfactory operation and maintenance of service infrastructure. In terms of environmental impact, sustainable access refers to the effects on resources within or outside the service area of the technology and the processes required for adequate access. Thus, such technology and processes should not result in environmental damage or other negative consequences within or outside the service areas, such as exposing people to health risks or creating pollution or degradation of the local living environment or of downstream water resources. In a broader sense, the service should also be one that “meets the needs of the present [generation] without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987); it should be one that does not compromise the goals of sustainable development, namely, economic development, social equity and justice, and environmental protection..”

We know sustainable sanitation is not just EcoSan (see blog of 21 May). So how about this for a definition?

Sustainable hygienic sanitation is a sanitation system that is affordable; socially, technically, physically and institutionally feasible; able to be used easily, properly and on demand, and able to be maintained easily, regularly and at low cost, by its users, including women and children, in the long term; provides a hand-washing facility (or has one nearby); and has no adverse effects on the environment.