It’s no secret that evaluating the success of a development project is an inexact science. A key problem is the funding cycle: chances are, the funders will want (and pay for) an evaluation report while the last bits of implementation work are still being wrapped up. That’s fine if you just aim to build some infrastructure or install some technology – but not when you aim for long-term change in behaviour.

Sanitation projects are a case in point. Tales abound of cases where shiny new toilet blocks that made for a great project evaluation stand unvisited, broken or converted into storage for animal feed a year or two later. And even when project evaluators look at attitudes and behaviours, they can rarely predict what people will be thinking and doing a few months or years down the line.

Filling the sanitation gap, and doing it in the most sustainable way possible, is a critical and urgent challenge. It is not just about meeting sanitation goals but also about protecting human health, environments and water resources; breaking cycles of poverty and disadvantage, including gender-related; and catalyzing broader development. We need to get it right.

For that reason, the SEI Initiative on Sustainable Sanitation invested in going back to 44 villages where three major sanitation projects were completed to ask what happened next: are the toilets still being used? what do users think of them? As the study focused on ecological sanitation (ecosan) the project also wanted to know about peoples’ habits and thinking around the safe reuse of recovered nutrients and organic matter in agriculture.

The studies took place in Burkina Faso – a country that has a persistent major shortfall in rural sanitation.

Good news for Clean and Green

A headline finding was that the shift from open defecation to using sanitation was largely holding. Interestingly, there were strong signs that the reuse aspects of ecosan were crucial in this success. Where projects had focused their community outreach and training on the benefits of agricultural reuse, rather than on sanitation access and health benefits, they achieved a markedly higher level of sustained toilet use, as well as rates of emptying the latrines and recycling excreta. The fertilizer potential was also the top reason given by households for adopting ecosan, above protecting health and environment cleanliness.

This adds even more evidence to support Clean and Green, a new rural sanitation implementation framework proposed by SEI in a recent Discussion Brief. The core feature of Clean and Green is coupling the risk-management benefits of sanitation and hygiene (Clean) with better management and productive recycling of locally available resources (Green) – not only human excreta but ash, food waste, animal manure, crop residues and others.

… and for cross-sector collaboration

Unlike conventional sanitation, ecosan demands more integrated, cross-sectoral governance. SEI researchers Sarah Dickin and Linus Dagerskog will be presenting both the project follow-up study and the Clean and Green concept in a policy workshop in Ougadougou on 26 September. Hosted by the Ministry of Water and Sanitation, the workshop will also bring together health, agriculture and environment ministry representatives, along with donors, development partners and local research expertise. A central aim will be to discuss the implications of the research and how the sanitation sector will deal with recycling when urban and rural programmes scale up – aiming for full national sanitation coverage by 2030.

How does gender affect water and sanitation security?

Shortly after this meeting, Sarah Dickin will also be taking part in another workshop in the Burkinabe capital, on 29 September. This meeting will review findings of the first phase of a study to develop gender-sensitive tools to assess household-level water and sanitation security, with a view to helping monitor achievement of SDGs 5 (Gender equality) and 6 (Clean water and sanitation). The next phase will examine the role of gender empowerment in enhancing the capacities of vulnerable groups to respond to risks related to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).

“Realizing universal coverage of water and sanitation requires a better understanding of how to reach all groups, including women and girls, with water and sanitation services,” says Sarah Dickin. “Measurement matters, and national-level data can obscure inequalities. Robust indicators and assessment tools are needed in order to identify who is most vulnerable to WASH security risks and target a response.”

This research was funded by a Catalyst grant, as part of the REACH global research programme to improve water security for the poor.


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