Sector experts and city managers all over the world have worked hard to support effective urban sanitation, often with limited success. This is often due to a set of enduring myths.
Myth #1: There is no demand for improvements where sanitation is poor or absent
In fact: There is latent demand for sanitation services even in the poorest areas. Poor residents often feel unable to affect change, especially when facing uninterested politicians, land tenure limitations, and technical challenges, and they are reluctant to openly express their demands.
Myth #2: Poor people are not willing to pay for sanitation services
In fact: Poor people are willing to pay for sanitation services and they do, even when they receive services of substandard nature. Often, their only option is to resort to an unregulated private service to periodically empty their latrine/septic tank, whereas richer areas are connected to sewer systems with subsidized or free services.
Myth #3: There isn’t enough money to solve the urban sanitation problem
In fact: There are available resources but they need to be better allocated and used more efficiently. Investments needs are huge — 40% of estimated funds needed to extend universal access to safely managed water, sanitation and hygiene are needed for urban sanitation. In addition to increasing public budgets, which will be necessary but not sufficient, service providers and households need to be supported to make efficient investment decisions. Private financing can be leveraged for investment opportunities, especially if public funds are used more strategically.
Myth #4: Investing in urban sanitation is not productive
In fact: Sanitation investments provide demonstrated health, economic, social and environmental benefits that are essential to turn cities into vibrant economic centers. Globally, inadequate sanitation costs poor countries on average 5% of their GDP. The economic return on sanitation spending is estimated at US$5.5 for every dollar invested.
Myth #5: Centralized conventional sewers and wastewater treatment are the only way to solve the urban sanitation crisis
In fact: Experience of citywide inclusive sanitation in numerous cities (be it from Brasilia, Dakar, Durban, Manila, Kuala Lumpur or Seattle) mixing onsite collection and fecal sludge treatment solutions and sewerage solutions show important progress. Adaptive, expandable, decentralized and cost-effective approaches, mixing onsite collection and treatment and sewerage solutions, can be resilient to external economic, demographic and environmental shocks. Local innovation allows for sanitation solutions that reflect local conditions and meet customer needs.
Myth #6: Solving urban sanitation is all about toilets
In fact: Providing access to a toilet, a latrine or a sewer connection is only part of the solution. The SDGs now require that human waste is conveyed, treated and reused/disposed of safely and sustainably. The full sanitation service chain needs to be sustainably managed.
Myth #7: Sanitation produces waste that is a nuisance to be eliminated
In fact: Human waste contains valuable nutrients. These can be recovered and reused as soil conditioner or fertilizer. Energy can be produced from both heat recovery and biogas combustion. Water can be recycled for industrial, agricultural, domestic and even potable use. Such underutilized value, when monetized, can generate revenue to offset service costs.
In summary, there is no silver bullet; no simple, single solution to urban sanitation challenges. We must develop locally relevant and innovative solutions along the sanitation service chain that put customers first and focus as much on service management as on technology. City planners and other sector decision makers should consider the tradeoffs along the service chain between, for example, providing basic access to a toilet to all versus providing sewers and advanced wastewater treatment to the few.