Sanitation, more than just toilets

2.6 billion people do not have access to improved sanitation and over a billion people still have no option but to practice open defecation. In developing countries, as much as 80 % of wastewater is untreated and goes directly into lakes, rivers and oceans (WWDR, 2009, p. 141)… Sanitation is fundamental for human survival and for leading a life in dignity, the right to sanitation is an essential component of the right to an adequate standard of living… The right to sanitation is also integrally related…to the right to health…the right to housing…as well as the right to water… Statement on the Right to Sanitation, UN ESC, par.4, 7

Saturday and the class discussion was on infrastructure development of drainage systems. It is a three-hour class and by noon time the topic centred in on the state of household sewage along the Balili River in La Trinidad. Information was that human waste of these households went straight into the River and in our minds we estimated for the number of households along that strip, in effect the total number of polluters. We tried to imagine nothing else, not the image of the pollutant dropping into the River. Lunch was immediately after the topic.

In that particular topic, I chose not to take active part in the discussion but only to listen, and came away with an important realization. In the recent past, I had listened to and even participated in similar discussions of the topic, but within the social development community. Usually, in that community, discussions of the household sanitation problem segued into identifying solutions and the solution is always provision of toilets, individual or communal, by the development agency. But strange that years of giving away these almost free toilets have not dramatically improved the sanitation in the communities, some reasons being the communities lacked a regular supply of water and so do not utilize the toilets and their inability to maintain upkeep of the facility because of inadequacy of household money for that (which simply brings them right back to the problem, their inability to put up a basic household facility (toilet)). In the class that Saturday, of urban management course takers, the discussion of the same problem segued into the responsibility of the city or municipal building official – the city or municipal engineer, in other words – to ensure that prior to approval of a building permit the owner has included in the building plan basic building facilities, in this case, toilet(s) and with it sewage and drainage system and that in the completion of the construction prior to issuance of occupancy permit an ocular inspection is made to verify that what is stated in the plan are built (in Western countries the practice is that ocular inspection or monitoring is done at every critical phase of the construction). In other words, no toilet in the plan no construction and occupancy permits. This is in the building code and sanitation laws. But what’s happening is a total defiance of a good building practice and the law. And so now we’re choked with a massive sanitation and drainage problem and this case is only about household sanitation. Out there, the state of waste and storm water drainage in streets is another major headache.

What I’m trying to show here is the difference in perspectives of two communities of practice – the development community and the community of urban planners and managers – in their management of the same problem. And that each could learn from the other’s perspective. The former approaches the problem from mainly a poverty alleviation lens and the latter approaches it from an economic and legal (i.e. invocation of rights and responsibility) frame. The former provides the missing facility or fulfils the need mainly because the household or the community cannot afford it. The latter assumes or expects that the person putting up a building has the economic means to finance its construction including all basic facilities and that government, the agency to regulate such activity, will ensure that legal requirements for the activity are complied with.

What happens when the poor put up a house anyway without applying to the government nor complying with basic facilities such as a toilet and sewage and drainage system? (If they don’t own or have lease of the land, that’s another problem on top of the one being discussed, and that is called squatting, another massive headache of this country.) We think the government hasn’t thought about this and is at a loss, but it has. The National Urban Development and Housing Framework provides for socialized housing for the poor, and that the effective way to do it is for the country’s urban administrators – the public administrators, in other words – to anticipate the problem in their locality and plan ahead (i.e. baselining the poor, projecting units of socialized housing to be put up, planning for costs, working out a financing scheme, etc.). What we have however are responsible offices reacting to the problem (apart from turning over so-called socialized housing units at a pricey tag to the poor and the poor finding it can’t still pay for the socialized housing unit turn away or resell it to richer citizens who are now occupying these, prompting one to ask why call the buildings “socialized” at all and their construction from public coffers too?) until the poor have grown to an immense 80% of 80 M, and, overwhelmed, have turned away, the abandonment a seemingly yes to the poor to go on building unsanitary dwelling places. The effect on society of government’s lack of accountability for this issue is like deliberately infecting oneself with disease and not be the least alarmed at the sight and feel of the spreading sores. It could be speculated that the person’s conscious and rational faculties have taken flight.

Mapping the underground network of waste (industrial, household, hospital/potentially-infectious waste are separated) and storm water drainage system (that should in some part go into a waste recycling and treatment systems) is a task of the urban or town planner, but it is doubtful that this is being done in cities and towns of this country. Since not all building constructions are applied with government and since government whether applied to or not does not act on its regulatory role, what we have is a stand alone kanya-kanya and chaotic “network” of all kinds of waste being drained into available receptacles such as rivers, streams, lakes, etc. (One could imagine the level of degradation these wastes are doing to natural resources not to mention ourselves.)

The toilet is part of a sanitation and drainage infrastructure system and this system is linked to a social system made up of families and households; an economic system or that which defines the capacity of families and households to pay or purchase and the market which defines the price of goods and services related to building and toilet construction and sanitation and drainage infrastructure development; a legal and compliance system comprised of laws and regulations (or, pertaining to rights and responsibilities); and a governance and political system made up of public institutions and administrators. How to even begin is the challenge.

2 thoughts on “Sanitation, more than just toilets

  1. The Mersey was an open sewer, I feel for your locals, and the quote “breezes from” brings back memories.
    Your ‘sporadic water supply’ might possibly be the key for your local groups to start with, affordable solutions are available, especially if recycled materials are used. Work in small communities and it doesn’t seem so daunting. For toilets grey water systems could be incorporated with storm water holders.


    1. Yes, definitely it has to start somewhere and as you said within communities and with local low cost solutions. There are communities which did that, through their own and external support, and good models need to spread far and wide. Thanks.


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