Woman pouring treated human urine onto plants

Treated human urine makes an excellent agricultural fertilizer. Photo: SuSanA Secretariat / Flickr.

There’s not much that’s glamorous about toilets. When sanitation experts talk enthusiastically about the latest urine-diverting toilets, the challenges of anal rinsing water and the many uses of faecal sludge, other people’s reactions range from embarrassment to downright alarm. When we hear about open defecation and open sewers running through slums and refugee camps, we wring our hands – and then sneak off to wash them as soon as we get the chance. It’s quite natural when we’ve been taught from an early age to contain excreta, never touch it, and if possible, never mention it in company.

But we can’t afford to keep being this squeamish. While progress towards some of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has been good, the target to halve the number of people without access to basic sanitation by 2015 is going to be missed by a mile – or half a billion people, to be more precise. There may be many reasons for this failure, but one of them is undoubtedly that sanitation is an area where it has been particularly difficult to engage donors and governments.

And this is serious. Poor sanitation and hygiene provision helps spread a range of fatal diseases (including ebola). It adds an extra dimension of lethal risks to floods. It damages ecosystems. It can make it particularly difficult for girls to go to school once they start menstruating. It costs families and economies dear, as work days (and life years) are lost due to wholly avoidable sickness. And it can force girls and women to scurry off to fields or alleyways for privacy after dark, making them vulnerable to assault.

Sanitation for sustainable development

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), currently being crafted in the UN as the successors to the MDGs, offer a golden opportunity to address sanitation properly. The current draft of the SDGs, prepared by the UN General Assembly’s Open Working Group, aims high – proposing adequate and equitable access to sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030. That means serving the 4.2 billion people currently without access to functional sanitation systems, including 1 billion who still regularly practise open defecation – and likely many more with rapid projected population growth in sub-Saharan Africa and those parts of Asia where water and sanitation provision is weakest.

Clearly, business-as-usual is not going to get us to this target. But the SDGs are precisely about changing business-as-usual, about transformation. The SDGs call for integration of the three elements of sustainable development: social, economic and environmental; and for strategies that reflect the interconnections (read, competing demands, trade-offs and win-win opportunities) between different sectors.

Why is this good for sanitation? First, considering water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in isolation from other aspects of development and resource management is increasingly untenable. For example, the 90% of wastewater currently released untreated poses serious risks to both health and ecosystems that support human life. Furthermore, some of the areas where sanitation needs will be greatest in the coming 15 years are already suffering water shortages and facing rapid population growth, so the impetus of the draft SDGs towards integrated development planning for water use, reuse and recycling between sectors and to protect ecosystems (in Goals 6, 12 and 15, for example) is particularly welcome. A range of “sustainable sanitation” systems are available that minimize water inputs and enable its safe, efficient recycling.

Likewise, the different waste streams coming from a household have a significant energy content. For example, a kilo of kitchen waste can produce about 100-200 litres of biogas, while a kilo of human faeces can produce another 60 litres. For an average family of four in sub-Saharan Africa, these combined waste streams could produce “affordable, modern, reliable and sustainable” energy (Goal 7) equal to 25 km of car travel every week.

And there’s another set of interconnections with huge – if hard-to-palate – potential benefits, between sanitation, agriculture and food security. Our family of four excretes in a year as much of the essential agricultural nutrients nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium as can be found in 50 kg of synthetic chemical fertilizer (costing around US$ 85). Most of this is found in the urine which, with a little storage, becomes an entirely safe, odourless fertilizer that can boost crop yields at little or no cost (or at larger scales be marketed profitably). This is already a major boon for poor rural communities, cutting costs for those who could afford to buy chemical fertilizer and boosting productivity by as much as five times for those who couldn’t. Faeces take longer to render safe and usable, but is still valuable organic matter that can eventually improve soil condition. Put simply, human excreta are a valuable resource that we should not go on wasting.

The emphasis on an integrated vision will also, perhaps, open donors’ and policy-makers’ ears a little more to statistics like this: while poor sanitation costs India around US$ 54 billionannually, according to the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Programme, the provision of improved sanitation in India could create new business opportunities worth US$ 152 billion.

From opportunity to reality

But the challenges are many. To shift to sustainable sanitation provision, countries will need to integrate sanitation into sustainable development planning, institutions and policies in a way that helps maximize the benefits and minimize trade-offs. We also need to keep developing innovative ways to work with communities that not only motivate people to abandon open defecation, but also to reuse sanitation wastewater and “humanure”.

One thing that could help is for the final SDGs to go even further than the latest proposal in supporting sustainable sanitation. For example, they now call for sanitation to be “available” to all; why not “sustained use”? This would help avoid one common problem of sanitation programmes under the MDGs: building toilets that after a while no-one uses (at least not as toilets). The SDGs could also more clearly call for nutrient reuse and recycling (the current text is ambiguous) in the context of sanitation – making the interlinkages between sanitation, sustainable production and food security even clearer. Even if the language on sanitation does not change, indicators developed to measures countries’ progress on the SDGs will also make a big difference.

But as with the MDGs, what’s most important in the end is implementation. This time around, we must confront the sanitation challenge openly, and recognize its central place in sustainable development.

SEI-2014-Blog-Andersson-Trimmer-IRF2015-cowpats toilet

The benefits of improved sanitation access – this toilet, provided under a government programme, has found a second life as storage site for dried cow dung. The family still practises open defecation.