Who should pay for sanitation? The consumers who use the service, the utilities in charge of providing it, or governments who are responsible for ensuring citizens can access safe facilities? Consumers pay to connect their homes to a sewer network, utilities use that cash to cover the costs of staffing, upkeep, operations and maintenance and network expansion, and governments subsidise the construction of large-scale treatment plants that treat the wastewater. So far, so simplistic…

Anyone who is familiar with providing sanitation in cities – in London as in Lusaka – knows that this barely scratches the surface. It’s extremely difficult to say where one person’s contribution should end and where someone else’s begins.

For example, in the scenario above, how much should households be charged for connecting to a city’s sewer network? Should their bill just cover the cost of installing the connection, or should their payment also recover some of the cost of running a wastewater treatment plant? Should richer residents partly cover the expense of improving sanitation for their poorer neighbours?

Previous studies looking at the costs of sanitation used different methodologies, making it very hard to directly compare the various options. Few analyses consider the ongoing costs of desludging, transport or treatment – all things that will significantly affect sanitation service providers and households using on-site facilities. Context also makes many studies incomparable – something cheap and effective in Senegal, for example, could be completely unworkable in Madagascar.

Read our new Policy Brief on ‘Comparing the costs of different urban sanitation solutions in developing cities in Africa and Asia’.

Without this information, we cannot accurately know how much various sanitation options really cost in the long-term, and so we cannot determine who should pay for what, when, and how much. In cities where low-income communities rely on on-site sanitation (and will do for years to come), this information is crucial for working out the financial nuts-and-bolts behind expanding sanitation to poorer urban residents.

Assessing a pre-fabricated septic tank for potential use in a low-income community in Ghana

This is why WSUP, under the Urban Sanitation Research Initiative, has commissioned an 18-month-long research project focusing on three cities: Malindi (Kenya), Rangpur (Bangladesh) and Ga West (Ghana). Researchers will identify three distinct sanitation improvement options (on-site or off-site), estimate their lifecycle costs, assess price-to-consumer(s), and then establish low-income consumers’ willingness-to-pay for those options.

Following in-depth analysis and financial modelling, this research will reveal an accurate picture of the costs of providing different kinds of improved sanitation and assess how much can be realistically assumed to come from low-income consumers.

Without wanting to presuppose the final results of a long and complex research project, it seems likely that there will be funding shortfalls for the selected sanitation options. Either way, we anticipate that this project will produce useful and accurate evidence about the costs of pro-poor sanitation for stakeholders in Bangladesh, Ghana and Kenya, informing their future urban sanitation planning and provoking consideration about potential sources for pro-poor sanitation funding.

Full findings of the sanitation costings comparison literature review are reported in Daudey L 2017 ‘The cost of urban sanitation solutions: a literature review’ Journal of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for Development http://washdev.iwaponline.com/content/early/2017/10/19/washdev.2017.058

The new Urban Sanitation Research Initiative project on sanitation costs and consumer willingness-to-pay is being led by Aquaya. Keep following the Urban Sanitation Research Initiative for updates on the project’s findings over the next year and a half.

Featured image: Maka with her pour-flush, sewer-connected toilet in Kibera, Nairobi