Aerial image showing swirling water patterns at a waste management facility, Arizona, United States of America. Photo: Abstract Aerial Art / Getty Images .

“Wash your hands” may have become the mantra of 2020 and has likely prevented many coronavirus infection cases. But we must understand just how vital functioning sanitation systems are.

We know that many diseases, such as cholera, hepatitis A and typhoid, spread via low-grade sanitation and some data suggests that COVID-19 can similarly be transmitted via faeces. This is especially the case when people flush toilets without closing lids , when ventilation, drainage and plumbing are badly designed or in poor condition, and when wastewater and sludge go untreated (See this brief from WHO ).

So, as governments and development agencies seek to increase basic service coverage, it’s crucial to acknowledge that investments in sustainable sanitation can not only offer protection from COVID-19, but also from other public health emergencies down the road, such as disease outbreaks that emerge from pollution, stagnating water and untreated sewerage.

The benefits of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) aren’t confined to health, however.

COVID-19 has demonstrated the risks related to our dependence on vulnerable global supply chains. Installing circular productive sanitation systems could help countries address these riks by developing a self-reliant base of local resources. Waste recovery can enable production of organic fertilizers and fossil-free energy for electricity, heat and cooking, while used water can satisfy crop irrigation and cleaning needs.

Such a circular sanitation system would also have economic benefits. Its development and operation would generate jobs, essential for COVID-19 recovery as well as a just transition to low-carbon economies. It would also provide people with the health, safety and time necessary for focusing on their life goals, such as education or public engagement and social enterprise.

In addition, the initial investment in this system would be offset by the internalization of costs that otherwise end up in healthcare or unproductive soil and polluted water. The effective use of resources would decrease costs over time, while multiplying returns and opportunities.

The sanitation service chain

The sanitation service chain. From the user interface and waste production (the toilet) to collection and storage, conveyance and transport, treatment, and resource recovery and reuse. They link in to the SDGs because they provide safe and inclusive services (SDGs 1, 3, 5, 10, 11); waste management for health and environment (SDGs 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15); and recycling for agriculture and energy (SDGs 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 13).

Change the game

Over the past five years, through the Initiative on Sustainable Sanitation, SEI experts have developed a toolbox of solutions to support the delivery of sustainable, equitable and integrated WASH services for cities and rural areas applicable both to the Global South and North. The insights from this experience provide a framework for driving sustainable and resilient change.

1. Think before doing

Taking local realities into account in implementation is crucial: gender relations and power dynamics will shape project results and can undermine the success of the entire operation. These impacts can be better understood with the help of the Empowerment in WASH Index (EWI).

For example, the application of EWI in Asutifi North, in Ghana, revealed that women felt disempowered because of a lack of input into household decisions to participate in community WASH planning and implementation. Men also felt disempowered because they were not involved in decisions about water collection and management at the household level.

2. Treasure trash

In many countries, the public sector is yet to recognize the value of waste. An SEI research team designed the Resource Value Mapping (REVAMP) tool to help city planners estimate the total reuse potential available in, and financial value of, a city’s organic waste streams. REVAMP can also be used to establish dialogue and collaboration with different stakeholders involved in resource recovery, ensuring that there are markets and supply chains for the waste-derived products.

REVAMP has been applied in Chia, Colombia and Naivasha, Kenya, where it takes data from municipal waste flows and uses it to calculate how much revenue, plant fertilizer or clean energy (biogas, briquettes) could potentially be produced from it at municipal level. It can then calculate the optimal mix of these outputs for different waste-management and reuse scenarios.

3. Distribute responsibility

COVID-19 has underlined the attention and care that poor and vulnerable communities need, and the risks of not providing it. Few governments, however, have the capacity to provide blanket WASH service delivery, especially in countries where budgets are already tight and implementation capacity is low, problems which will be exacerbated by COVID-19-induced economic turmoil.

Collaborating with their citizens is one path through. For instance, the Community Health Clubs (CHCs) approach is now strategically used in Rwanda as a way to prevent and monitor the spread of the coronavirus. Starting from community mobilization, CHCs utilizes positive peer pressure, which involves establishing “clubs” that include entire communities and promote a “culture of health”, through altering norms, increasing social capital and alignment with cultural values.

4. Leverage connections

Networks and partnerships have proven decisive for the exchange of ideas and innovation. Working together can provide access to new infrastructure, knowledge and experience and lead to collaborative arrangements that foster sustainability.

 The city of Słupsk in Northern Poland, and it’s Słupsk Bioenergy Cluster , provides an example of such a symbiosis. First, the city diversified its wastewater treatment plant (Słupsk WWTP) functions, complementing handling of sewerage with biogas generation and production of high in phosphorous BIOTOP fertilizer. In 2015, prompted by high regional energy demand, Słupsk Waterworks, a publicly owned company that operates the plant, reached out to local businesses, many of which were already producing their own wind and solar energy. Now, the 19 founding members of the cluster are producing reliable renewable electricity and heat at low costs and make more of the profitable fertilizer from nutrients recaptured from sludge.

5. Keep your eyes on sustainability.

SEI research and experience indicate that sustainable and productive sanitation can cost-effectively support and drive action in a number of areas simultaneously. These include hunger and poverty reduction, clean energy, education, gender equality, life on land and below water, as well as in health and climate projects (See Sanitation, Wastewater Management and Sustainability page 9).

For instance, the Clean and Green framework was designed to promote resilient communities through improvements in agricultural productivity together with human and ecosystem health. Based on the principle of risk management and resource efficiency, this holistic community-based approach can not only protect nature and deliver food security, health and employment, but can also foster collaboration between actors and agencies working in these areas.

With their solution-multiplying power, productive sanitation and sustainable WASH services can help us overcome the adversities of the ongoing crisis and maintain resilience when another one strikes.