Thursday, 2 October 2008

Sustainable Sanitation or just EcoSan?

IWA Publishing will publish in November the book Pathways for Sustainable Sanitation: Achieving the Millennium Development Goals by Arno Rosemarin, Nelson Ekane, Ian Caldwell, Elisabeth Kvarnstrom, Jennifer McConville, Cecilia Ruben and Madeleine Fogde, of the EcoSanRes Programme at the Stockholm Environment Institute (it’s expensive: GBP 25 for 64 pages!). This is part of what the pre-publication blurb says:

The report is a product arising from the work of the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance which was initiated prior to the International Year of Sanitation in 2008 in an attempt to inject sustainable development ideas into the sanitation sector. ... It reviews the global progress being made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target on sanitation. ... The report also provides a critique in that the UN has not yet introduced the concept of sustainability into the MDG programme in general and in particular into the sanitation sector which is highly dysfunctional and suffering from limited political leadership at both the local and global levels. It introduces the various sustainable sanitation options available and what approaches can be taken to improve sanitation systems – not just toilets which are only a small part of the overall system of food, nutrients and water cycles. ... The report estimates the potential fertiliser replacement capacity that reuse of human excreta can have for all world regions. Finally it provides a vision for future development within the sector where more sustainable options like source separation and reuse are promoted giving positive environmental or “green” impacts but also catalysing greater involvement and understanding on the part of individuals in society.

The key bit for me is “... more sustainable options like source separation and reuse ...”, and these are (according to the book’s title) going to achieve, or help to achieve, the MDG sanitation target. Well, I’ve got news for the authors: they won’t! There’s absolutely no way that ‘source-separation EcoSan’ is going to make any significant contribution to the MDG sanitation target. Why? Because there’s only seven years left to achieve the target and EcoSan just isn’t ready to go to scale. Ralf Otterpohl said at the Sanitation Challenge conference (see blog of 21 May) that it was only ready to go to scale in rural areas – and my view, reinforced by what I saw in Ouagadougou (see today’s earlier blog), is that EcoSan progress in rural areas is so slow that not much will happen by 31 December 2015.

There’s no doubt that the EcoSan ‘philosophy’ is sound, but its advocates need to realise that not enough has been done to get it to scale. They might argue that it is already scalable in rural areas – this might be true, but will it actually get to scale before the end of 2015? I have my doubts.