Cover Image
close this bookSanitation Promotion (SIDA - SDC - WSSCC - WHO, 1998, 292 p.)
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View the documentAcknowledgements
View the documentAcronyms
View the documentWelcome
close this folderThe challenge - A sanitation revolution
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View the documentThe problem of sanitation - WSSCC Working Group on Promotion of Sanitation
View the documentCommonly held wrong assumptions about sanitation - WSSCC Working Group on Promotion of Sanitation
View the documentSanitation research needs - WSSCC Working Group on Promotion of Sanitation
close this folderGaining political will and partnership
close this folderPrinciples and guidelines
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View the documentAdvocacy for sanitation - Sara Wood1 and Mayling Simpson-Hébert2
View the documentMobilizing the media for sanitation promotion - WHO, Geneva, Switzerland
View the documentMobilizing partners for sanitation promotion - Sara Wood1 and Mayling Simpson-Hébert2
View the documentPrivate-sector involvement in promoting sanitation - Sara Wood1
View the documentSocial marketing for sanitation programmes - Sunil Mehra1
close this folderCase studies
View the documentSecuring political will in Uganda - John Odolon1
View the documentSanitation in Surat - Ashoke Chatterjee1
close this folderPromotion through better programmes
close this folderPrinciples and guidelines
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentImportant elements for a successful national sanitation programme - WSSCC Working Group on Promotion of Sanitation
View the documentPrinciples of better sanitation programmes - WSSCC Working Group on Promotion of Sanitation
View the documentPrinciple cards - WSSCC Working Group on Promotion of Sanitation
View the documentFeatures of better sanitation programmes - WSSCC Working Group on Promotion of Sanitation
View the documentPrinciples of sanitation in emergency situations (1) - John Adams1
View the documentGuidelines on achieving water supply and sanitation in peri-urban areas - WSSCC Urbanization Working Group
View the documentPrinciples of the strategic sanitation approach - Albert M. Wright1
close this folderEmpowerment
View the documentA gender perspective in sanitation projects - Angela Hayden1
View the documentHygiene behaviour-change: lessons from other sectors - Carol Jenkins1
View the documentParticipatory approaches to community empowerment - John Odolon1
View the documentParticipatory monitoring and evaluation of sanitation projects - Jennifer Rietbergen-McCracken1, Sara Wood2 and Mayling Simpson-Hébert3
View the documentFinancing low-income household sanitation facilities through household credit - Robert Varley1
close this folderChecklist
View the documentChecklist for planning better sanitation projects - WSSCC Working Group on Promotion of Sanitation
View the documentChecklist for planning sanitation in emergency situations - Mayling Simpson-Hebert1
View the documentChecklist for planning hygiene behaviour-change in sanitation projects - Mayling Simpson-Hebert1 and Sara Wood2
View the documentGender checklist for planning sanitation projects - Angela Hayden1
close this folderPromotion through innovation
close this folderChild-centred approaches
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPromoting sanitation through children - Angela Hayden1
View the documentThe Bal Sevak programme in India - Nandita Kapadia-Kundu and Ashok Dyalchand1
View the documentThe HESAWA school health and sanitation package - Eben S. Mwasha1
View the documentChildren as health and hygiene promoters in South Africa - Edward D. Breslin1, Carlos Madrid2 and Anderson Mkhize3
close this folderParticipatory approaches
View the documentPromoting sanitation through community participation in Bolivia - Betty Soto T.1
View the documentStrengthening a rural sanitation programme using participatory methods in Uganda - John Odolon1
close this folderInnovative technologies
View the documentTowards an ecological approach to sanitation - Uno Winblad1
View the documentPromoting composting toilets for Pacific Islands - Leonie Crennan1
View the documentPeri-urban sanitation promotion in Mozambique - Darren Saywell1
View the documentUrine as fertilizer in Mexico City - Yoloquetzatl Ceballos1
View the documentExperimenting with dry toilets in El Salvador - Ron Sawyer1 and George Anna Clark2
View the documentMeeting demand for dry sanitation in Mexico - Ron Sawyer1
View the documentLow-cost sewerage - Duncan Mara1
View the documentWorm composting and vermitechnologies applicable to sanitation - S. Zorba Frankel1
View the documentBibliography
View the documentBack cover

The problem of sanitation - WSSCC Working Group on Promotion of Sanitation

The burden of poor sanitation

Every year, 2.5 million (1) children die of diarrhoea that could have been prevented by good sanitation: millions more suffer the nutritional, educational, and economic loss through diarrhoeal disease that improvements in sanitation, especially human excreta management, can prevent. Human excreta are responsible for the transmission of diarrhoea, schistosomiasis, cholera, typhoid, and other infectious diseases affecting thousands of millions. Overall, WHO estimates that nearly 3.3 million people die annually from diarrhoeal diseases, and that a staggering 1.5 thousand million suffer, at any one time, from parasitic worm infections stemming from human excreta and solid wastes in the environment (2). Heavy investments have been made in water supply since 1980, but the resulting health benefits have been severely limited by poor progress in other areas, especially the management of human excreta. In additional to this toll of sickness and disease, the lack of good excreta management is a major environmental threat to the world's water resources, and a fundamental stumbling block in the advancement of human dignity.

Characteristics of the problem

Like all complex problems, poor sanitation can be analysed on many interrelated levels. The Collaborative Council Working Group on Promotion of Sanitation has identified problems, barriers, and themes that appear to operate on three levels.

Level 1 - The basic problem: sanitation isn't happening

Despite years of rhetoric, good intentions, and hard work, we are, in fact, making little or no progress in improving sanitary conditions for much of the world's population. Without major changes, the number of people without access to sanitary excreta management will not change in the next 40 years, remaining above 3000 million people (3). This is astonishing, given the human capacity to solve problems, the fundamental nature of this basic need, and the enormous suffering caused by our failure to meet it. Yet those of us working in sanitation agree that, with some notable exceptions, we are either losing ground or barely holding the line in our ability to dispose of our wastes in a healthy and ecologically sound, and safe, manner.

Level 2 - Barriers to progress: why improvements in sanitation aren't happening

Given the magnitude and importance of the problem, why is there so little progress? The barriers to progress found by the Working Group were varied and complex, but could generally be grouped into the following linked and overlapping categories.

Lack of political will. There is little political incentive for governments to deal with this difficult subject. Politicians rarely lose their jobs because of poor sanitation programmes, particularly as the people most in need have the least political power. Political commitment is needed to create an environment in which demand for sanitation can grow, and which, in turn, can strengthen political will. The issue of political will is thus both a cause and an effect of the other problems, and a key to successful sanitation promotion.

Low prestige and recognition. Promoting low-cost sanitation facilities and hygiene education has never been prestigious; politicians and movie stars do not demonstrate latrines. Among professionals, many of the best and the brightest avoid working on approaches to excreta management that are readily affordable because of the low-status and low-pay of such work. Others, recognizing the frustration of dealing with extremely limited resources, public apathy, and lack of political will, often seek the more professionally rewarding route of higher, more exciting, and better-funded technologies. Even among potential consumers, low-cost solutions to excreta management have little prestige compared to the conventional sewer systems used by the world's more affluent populations.

Poor policy at all levels. Agencies responsible for creating a supportive environment for sanitation, in general, have had ineffective and counterproductive policies at all levels. These include too much attention to water supply at the expense of excreta management and hygiene education, a focus on short-run outputs (hardware) rather than long-term behaviour change, and subsidies that favour middle- and high-income communities. More fundamentally, a philosophical approach to the problem, upon which sound policy can be based, is often lacking.

Poor institutional framework. Many players are affected by sanitation, and many more could be involved in its promotion. However, the institutional frameworks in place often fragment responsibilities in a multiplicity of government agencies and departments, neglect the needs of the most vulnerable segments of the population, and ignore the powerful role that NGOs and the private sector can play. It is clear that governments by themselves have failed to promote sanitation, and that existing institutional frameworks need to change.

Inadequate and poorly used resources. Excreta management and hygiene education attract only a fraction of the resources needed to do the job. Sanitation is at least as important for health as water supply, and is a far more demanding problem; yet sanitation receives far fewer resources. Increasing resources are required just to maintain the status quo, since urbanization and population growth are making the hazards of poor sanitation more acute. Where resources are available, far too much goes into hardware, and not enough into community mobilization and hygiene promotion.

Inappropriate approaches. Even where the promotion of sanitation is attempted, the approach taken is often wrong. Frequently, attempts are made to find universal solutions. These fail to acknowledge the diversity of needs and the cultural, economic, and social contexts in which they occur. For example, although the expectations of urban populations often differ from those living in rural settings, the technological options offered are often the same. Critical issues of behaviour are frequently ignored or handled badly. Short-term “fixes” have been generally favoured over long-term solutions, and we fail to learn from collective experience. This situation is further aggravated by a lack of awareness among engineers and government decision-makers on the performance characteristics of on-site excreta management systems. This lack of awareness is, in large part, due to the focus of traditional engineering education on conventional sewerage systems. Rejection of an on-site excreta management approach is also often based on the belief that the available “hardware” for on-site management is technically inferior, less sophisticated, and a managerial and administrative burden on households and government agencies alike.

Sanitation also fails by being defined and applied too broadly or too narrowly within a specific environment. In some cases, for example, the scope of environmental protection and pollution control becomes so broad that the focus on basic household excreta management is lost. In others, a narrow focus on a single technology, such as pit latrines, may ignore other community needs (such as drainage) that may exacerbate disease transmission during floods.

Failure to admit disadvantages of conventional excreta management systems. The collection and transport of human excreta by water carriage has been usefully employed in many parts of the world, and has resulted in the development of extensive social, political, and technical infrastructures. Nevertheless, the disadvantages of this system should be considered as well. These include: costs, the volume of water required for carriage, and the energy needed for treating the collected wastewater. Other disadvantages include the health, economic, and environmental effects of inadequately treated wastes and the loss of potentially valuable nutrients for small-scale agriculture.

Neglect of consumer preferences. Too often we try to promote what people do not want or cannot afford or both. Low-cost technologies are often seen by consumers as low-status technologies. Others, found appropriate by their promoters, are far beyond the financial reach of those in most need. Promoters try to sell excreta management systems based on health benefits, when most people are really more interested in the privacy, comfort, and the status that such technologies can offer. Further, much hygiene promotion is based on messages that ignore existing knowledge, belief, and experience. Put simply, most of us promoting sanitation simply do not hear what the people we serve say they want or believe.

Ineffective promotion and low public awareness. Although people have opinions about excreta management, they are reluctant to talk about the management of their excreta. Thus, selling the idea of improvements in sanitation is difficult. Engineers and health care professionals who are responsible for promoting sanitation are often unaware of effective promotional techniques and continue with top-down approaches that alienate the “target populations” by denying their voice, desires, and involvement in the process. Those who are charged with promoting sanitation are seldom prepared to do so in their education of others or in their professional practice. Adoption of social marketing and participatory approaches to sanitation is promising, but is still in its infancy; we have much to learn.

Women and children last. Women are potential agents of change in hygiene education and children are the most vulnerable victims of poor sanitation. Yet it is men who usually make the decisions about whether to tackle the problem and how. Many sanitation programmes ignore the need for safe management of children's faeces, even though they are a major source of pathogens. Women, more than men, often want privacy and security in their excreta management systems but are unable to express needs effectively in many societies. Hence, those with the most at stake have the weakest voice.

Level 3 - Cross-cutting themes: demand and taboo

Little effective demand. If more people expressed a desire for improvements in sanitation loudly enough, many of the problems would resolve themselves. This seeming lack of demand is often considered a constraint. People may want sanitation very badly, yet be powerless to express that desire in financial or political terms. Some may want safe excreta management facilities, but not at the available price. Others may not want the available “improvements” at any price. We need to examine critically the factors that limit demand, especially those with economic or political roots. Where sanitation is poor, we need to understand why the effective demand is low and to determine whether it is most amenable to political, financial, technical or information change.

Cultural taboo and beliefs. In most cultures, the handling of excreta is considered as taboo, and viewed as a disgusting or a dangerous nuisance not to be discussed openly or seriously or both. No one wants to be associated with excreta; even those who reduce its offensive characteristics for others are stigmatized by association. Problems cannot be solved if people do not want to talk about them and do not want to be associated with their solution. In many contexts, taboos, including modern technological ones, block the safe recovery of valuable agricultural resources from human wastes. The excreta taboo lies behind many of the barriers to progress in this area. To counter this, sanitation promotion and hygiene education should link the value of excreta (faeces and urine) with ecology. They should promote an understanding of the essential roles it plays in the life cycle of plants and animals, as well as the damaging effect that it can have on health and environment when improperly handled, discharged or reused.

A sanitation revolution

What is needed to turn this sector around is no less than a revolution in thought and action. The sector simply cannot continue as in the past. It is necessary to define principles, make priorities, create strategies and search for new technological, financial and institutional solutions. Advocacy and mobilization of new partners will be large parts of this revolution.

An approach to the sanitation challenge

An approach to the sanitation challenge is emerging that is not only human-centred, but also ecologically sustainable. It is concerned with equity, the protection of the environment, and the health of both the user and the general public. Its goal is to create socially, economically, and ecologically sustainable systems. To reach this goal, three key principles have been identified as critical to designing successful sanitation systems for the future.

Equity, within the sanitation sector, means that all segments of society have access to safe appropriate sanitation systems adapted to their needs and means. Currently, inequities are found at many levels, between rich and poor, men and women, and urban and rural. Equity implies that:

- access to safe sanitation systems is ensured for all communities;

- sanitation systems are being implemented that are safe and adapted to the economic means of the users;

- genuine community involvement takes place in both planning and management of systems;

- political will is mobilized to assure the rights of all in sharing needed resources for improved sanitation; and

- the information required for decision-making is available to all segments of user communities.

Health promotion and protection from disease, within the sanitation sector, means that systems are capable of preventing people from contracting excreta-related diseases as well as interrupting the cycle of disease transmission. Health promotion and protection from disease implies that:

- the importance of social and behavioural dimensions in achieving health benefits is given priority; and

- future sanitation technologies have the demonstrated capacity to prevent the transmission of pathogens.

Protection of the environment, within the sanitation sector, means that future sanitation systems must neither pollute ecosystems nor deplete scarce resources. Environmental protection implies that sanitation systems:

- do not lead to water or land degradation, and, where possible, ameliorate existing problems caused by pollution; and

- are designed to recycle to the maximum extent the renewable resources, such as water and nutrients present in human excreta, as well as non-renewable resources.

Programmes that fulfil all these principles simultaneously should lead to long-term sustainability.


Operationalizing the approach to the sanitation challenge of the 21st century

The unprecedented sanitation challenge requires that new strategies and methods to improve sanitation be applied to ensure equitable access for everyone, that human health be protected, and that environmental resources be protected and conserved, while moving towards the goal of achieving sustainability. This requires:

More openness

- to learning from personal experiences and those of others;

- to new and innovative approaches;

- to applying a mix of technologies and systems;

- to considering the impact of a sanitation system on equity and the environment;

- to consider the alternatives if a proposed sanitation system cannot be implemented completely; and

- to be aware of changing situations/crises.

Change in attitudes

- towards conservation and protection of resources;
- towards participatory approaches; and
- towards accepting waste as a resource.

This means adopting two operational strategies:

- flexibility in developing and applying sanitation systems, incorporating respect for community values, perceptions, and practices; and

- considering sanitation on its own merits and not as a sub-set of another sector.

The time has come to cease perceiving sanitation as an afterthought of water systems. To handle the magnitude of existing and future sanitation requirements, the sector should be restructured so that sanitation, as an essential public service, can be given appropriate consideration.

Recommendations for sanitation programmes

For implementation of sanitation programmes the following recommendations are made:

· Develop mechanisms to ensure that sanitation systems help prevent environmental pollution and degradation.

· Provide impetus for innovative research and development for a range of systems applicable to differing cultural and environmental conditions.

· Treat sanitation as a major field of endeavour in its own right, with sufficient levels of investment to revitalize training programmes and professional standing.

· Create a demand for systems that move increasingly towards reuse and recycling of human excreta.

· Encourage a review of sanitation policies within government, nongovernment, private, and sector donors.

· Involve people for whom the systems are being built in the design process.


(1) WHO. Health and environment in sustainable development. Five years after the Earth Summit. Geneva, World Health Organization, 1997 (unpublished document WHO/EHG/97.8).

(2) WHO: Community water supply and sanitation: needs, challenges and health objectives. Report by the Director-General. Forty-eighth World Health Assembly, Provisional agenda item 32.1. Geneva, World Health Organization, 1995 (unpublished document A48/INF.DOC/2).

(3) WHO/UNICEF Water supply and sanitation sector monitoring report: sector status as at 31 December 1994. Geneva, World Health Organization, 1996 (WHO/EOS/96.15).