Trade-offs and choices: realities in urban sanitation projects

Development charities don’t often talk about the difficulties; about the delays and frustrations. They will tell you of the awful situation people faced, and then “ta dah” here’s our solution. Why? Because we don’t want to apportion blame or appear somehow incompetent. But shouldn’t we try to look at the underlying difficulties: alert others, adjust our programming and try to make the system work better? Isn’t there value in being a little more transparent about the difficulties?

My visit to 3 small towns in India’s Odisha State brought these issues home to me. We have been working there to improve the sanitation situation through a range of technology options, new social and community engagement structures, new partnerships with pit emptiers, and constructing treatment plants for the safe final disposal of the contents of pit latrines and septic tanks.

We have faced pressures for swift action on the construction of physical infrastructure. This links to the Swachh Bharat Mission – a flagship program of the national government, aiming to make the nation open defecation free by 2019 (the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Ghandi) and to eliminate the practice of manual scavenging. Although it is ultimately the responsibility of municipalities to build and maintain water and sanitation infrastructures in the city, NGOs and civil society can support the process, and work in partnership to help achieve the government’s goals. As a result, NGOs like Practical Action have been given tight targets or deadlines to deliver on their activities. We have been asked to complete all infrastructures within a year. At the same time, the approvals process continues to be slow.

In two of the towns, the focus of our attention has been on the successful completion of some ground-breaking pieces of infrastructure (in particular faecal sludge treatment plants which will be among the first in the state). If they can be shown to work successfully, they could be a trigger for others to follow, and for the municipalities themselves (who in this case see themselves as integral partners in the exercise) to champion the work. Dealing effectively and safely with faecal sludge is a fast-emerging issue which will only become a higher priority as the Swachh Bharat Mission moves fast on the construction of new toilets.

Faecal sludge treatment plant under construction in Dhenkanal

As a result, it has been an incredibly busy and complex time for the team of Practical Action and our local partner organisations. Some of the barriers they have had to overcome have included;

  • The need for approvals for construction, both to secure land and then for designs to be approved. For different types of infrastructure this has involved a whole range of different agencies at different levels, and can be extremely complex and time-consuming.
  • The lack of structure and clear plans at the municipal level for city-wide sanitation or waste management have meant decisions need to be taken from first principles each time.
  • Frequent changes of officials are common, but in some cases key municipal staff have changed 5 or 6 times over 12-18 months. A huge amount of time has to be invested in re-starting these relationships and ensuring understanding and commitments
  • Political pressures towards rapid completion of infrastructure, has squeezed the time available for adequate planning and engagement of all stakeholders in agreeing roles and responsibilities for system operation
  • The need for close interaction with government schemes which shape the available solutions, and which technologies are acceptable. For example, local rules apply to the quality of toilets that can be constructed, what subsidies are available under Swachh Bharat and how the up-front costs can be financed.

With the Chairperson and Chief Officer, Dhenkanal

What we have learned is that there are trade-offs and difficult choices to be made. For example:

  • To make any progress at all, especially in the early days of a relationship with a municipality, infrastructure may need to be delivered quickly, squeezing the time available for ideal amounts of planning and engagement with all stakeholders
  • Pressures of time, local regulations and common practices, used to try to ensure good quality construction can counter intentions to use labourers from the local community, or community engagement in other aspects of construction (such as procurement, quality checking, or keeping track of materials)
  • Pressures to start with things that are more within our own control, and which look impressive, ahead of less visible things that might in fact make the greatest difference to slum dwellers. Working on these may have to wait a little until we have built up trust.

Taking an optimistic view, the pressure to complete construction, for example of the faecal sludge treatment plants, early on in the project (after one year of a two year project for example), does at least give us more time to work on getting the systems right and to monitor operation. In fact, this will ideally require longer than the year we have left to ensure all the hiccups in operation are addressed and resolved. The biggest challenges in the sanitation sector are all about sustained use, operation and maintenance. Community structures are in place to ensure their voices are heard in decision-making, but the detail of O&M still needs to be worked out.

Community discussion on sanitation

The World Urban Campaign’s vision is for the #cityweneed. A vision in which all residents have the opportunity for safe, healthy, and productive lives. Building on this, the New Urban Agenda endorsed by the UN General Assembly at the Habitat III conference in Quito in 2016 commits governments to urban development which ‘leaves no-one behind… providing equal access for all to physical and social infrastructure and basic services”. It promotes approaches which are “participatory, promote civic engagement, and engender a sense of belonging and ownership among all their inhabitants”.

New Urban Agenda

Achieving this as the direction for the achievement of SDG11 and in fact of all the SDGS in cities, will require pioneers, leadership and expertise. Demonstration of what is possible will help turn the tide on rampant inequalities and entrenched power bases. At the same time, the path can be full of obstacles both practical and political.

  • We need to learn, share and influence others to overcome these to achieve results in the best interests of the poorest residents.
  • We need to build trust in new ways of doing things so we can work in ways closer to the vision of the New Urban Agenda.

There is a need for trust-building everywhere and increased capacity. Peer learning can be a powerful means of developing that, and it is something we hope to be able to foster more of over time in our programme in Odisha: between municipalities, between slum dwellers, between groups of informal workers.

At Practical Action we will continue to learn and share our experiences, including the challenges. Watch this space!

One response to “Trade-offs and choices: realities in urban sanitation projects”

  1. Lisa Davies Says:

    Your article really chimed with me Lucy. Being new to the sector, my eyes have been opened as to just how complex and multifaceted the work we do is. Making things work in difficult circumstances is not easy – having open conversations around this can only help with all our audiences.

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