As you may recall from our introductory blog post, we are a group of researchers from the Urban Institute and Johns Hopkins University who are exploring questions around public sanitation financing for the urban poor. We’ve just wrapped up our field research in Maputo, Mozambique; Nakuru, Kenya; and the Ga West municipality in greater Accra, Ghana. After spending three weeks in the field, some of the questions that remain for me are: what’s coming out on the other end? And, who’s taking care of it? No, not the human end of the digestive process, but the end of the faecal sludge management (FSM) process.
For a good reference point, WSUP has already posted a terrific field note about their work in Lusaka, Zambia moving up what they call the “excreta management ladder”. The idea here is that households and cities can move up an excreta management ladder: at the bottom would be open defecation, a little way up would be basic pit latrine, and the top of the ladder might be high-quality pit latrine with well-functioning FSM system, or perhaps even eventually pour-flush toilets connected to well-functioning sewerage system. And of course “well-functioning” means not just effective collection and transport of faeces (whether by truck or sewer), but also effective treatment, and ultimately effective disposal and valorization.
[So just for clarity, two related but different concepts here: the service progression concept of Excreta Management Ladder as introduced by WSUP in the recent Lusaka Practice Note; and the established concept of Sanitation Chain describing “the path of a poop” from production to final disposal/reuse.]
For me, some of the more memorable moments from our field research were the visits to the end points of the sanitation chain, the treatment plants, and that’s not just because at one treatment plant we had to worry about water buffalo attacks! We certainly gained rich information from our numerous interviews, but nowhere were the complicated interactions between local government, public utilities and the private sector clearer than on the end of the chain.
Since our research goal is to understand how to trigger increased funding from local governments on pro-poor sanitation, it’s important to acknowledge how the majority of the poor are receiving their services. While the rates of connection to a sewer network range greatly in the three cities we studied, it was (unsurprisingly) found that the urban poor primarily use on-site sanitation. High usage of on-site sanitation requires attention to all the components of the sanitation chain, which is unfortunately largely neglected in the local municipalities for a variety of reasons – funding constraints, technical capacity, lack of priority and more. Regardless of the reasons, many questions still remain: where is all of that waste going? And who, if anyone, is responsible for it?
For example, in Ga West (and the greater Accra municipalities) sanitation services are entirely privatized at the household level. Any pit or septic tank that needs emptying is serviced by the numerous private exhauster trucks providing that service. The trucks dump directly into the ocean at a site known as Lavender Hill on the Accra coastline (if not straight into the bush). One official estimated that up to 1,200 cubic meters of untreated liquid waste is dumped into the ocean at Lavender Hill in one day. Despite legal action, media attention and a general outcry by environmental and WASH-related groups, Lavender Hill continues to be the only site for sewage dumping for not just greater Accra but neighboring municipalities too.
In contrast to Ghana’s privatized system of sanitation, we found that in Nakuru, Kenya, the wastewater treatment plant was managed by the local water and sanitation utility. The utility appears to be highly respected among the community and several people spoke of their two wastewater treatment plants coupled with drying beds, which boded well for a complete and functioning sanitation chain. And yet, it turns out that Nakuru has a more complex story, where major components of the plant have remained out of service for months in addition to reduced staffing capacity because of frequent animal attacks! The hold-up on those necessary repairs and large infrastructure investments (including a needed electric fence) are due to a combination of factors which include funding constraints and lack of priority, among others.
A final point of comparison is the treatment site in Maputo, Mozambique. We initially believed that private exhauster trucks take their waste to a treatment site called Infulane. Yet when we arrived we found that practically no treatment existed. Tucks were pouring raw sewage into overgrown ponds in no specific order. The same breakdown in FSM is occurring in Maputo, as in the other three cities. The local municipal authority in charge of sanitation has only one exhauster truck in its possession and the private sector fills in the large remaining gap for emptying services. Whether serviced publically or privately, the trucks are all going to the same place, a defunct plant ill-equipped to process faecal sludge.
The take-away for our team was to acknowledge the complexity of establishing a complete and fully functioning sanitation chain. Each city has taken a different approach to managing some components of the chain, but the last stages of excreta management, treatment and disposal, are inherently the most difficult due to the various players involved, high capital costs and jurisdiction issues. This is exactly why it’s critical that municipal authorities take the lead in managing this part of the process. Without their leadership beautiful coastlines, local rivers, lakes, and national parks will continue to be contaminated; human health in the poorest communities will be compromised; and cities will miss out on potential revenue gains from increased tourism and economic investments.