Although sanitation is one of the Millennium Development Goals, many regions are performing poorly in attaining their declared sanitation targets, including Sub-Saharan Africa. Whilst much of the focus is, understandably, on the provision of new toilets, the maintenance of those toilets already built cannot be forgotten.

Take South Africa as an example, where there are around 2 to 3 million ‘VIP’ latrines. While the government there has recognised that maintaining its commitment to sanitation as a basic human right means continuing to keep existing toilets operational (as well as providing new ones) it has left it to local government structures to work out how this should be done.

Most municipalities do not as yet have policies, budgets or procedures for the maintenance of on-site sanitation. A rough estimate suggests that in the rest of SADC there are perhaps another 5 million ‘urban’ latrines, many of which will also need emptying within five years or less of construction.

In urban areas it is much rarer for new pits to be dug once old latrines fill (for a variety of reasons). The issue of how to manage the faecal sludge accumulating in urban latrines is therefore a crucial one. Traditionally this is an issue that has attracted relatively little attention and had little prestige. Historically it has also been an area of limited innovation.

As the challenge of faecal sludge management (FSM) grows, things are changing however. Recent years have seen a flourishing of innovation across a range of issues. This has bettered our understanding of what happens in pit latrines, how sludge accumulates and degrades and how it can best be managed. New ways of getting sludge out of pits, in a more hygienic and efficient manner, are being pioneered in many countries worldwide. The final link in the chain, the important issue of how to deal with the sludge collected, is also under the spotlight, with new or better ways of dealing with pit sludge emerging.

The city of Durban has been a focal point for much of this innovation and learning and was therefore an appropriate place to gather a range of practitioners dealing with FSM. In March 2011 approximately 140 participants gathered – from local government, NGOs, research organisations and academia – in order to discuss the latest developments and share experience across four continents. This note captures the proceedings of the two day seminar, hoping to share some of the insights discussed and make research, learning and best practice available to a wider audience.