What needs to change to achieve access to sanitation for all by 2030?

The sanitation target was one of the most off-track of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Although there has been significant progress in household sanitation coverage percentage-wise, the total number of people without improved sanitation has decreased very slowly, and nowadays one in three people still lack improved sanitation. That is almost 2.4 billion people.

In addition, progress has been concentrated on the wealthiest quintiles and failed to reach the poorest. Serious concerns also remain about the sustainability of what has been achieved. Looking at urban areas specifically, population growth has outpaced progress, and rapidly increasing urbanisation promises to create a perfect storm …of faecal sludge.

Against this uninspiring backdrop, in 2015 the 193 Member States of the United Nations unanimously adopted the new Sustainable Development Agenda, with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 associated targets, including achieving access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030.

It does not require advanced maths to see that this represents a tremendously ambitious target, and that business as usual is not an option. But what does this new, un-usual business look like?

The question requires looking back and reflecting on what have been the key blockages, successes and lessons learned during the MDG era, as well as understanding the opportunities and challenges of the new global scenario. We reached out to 18 international sanitation experts and asked them about these pressing issues, and summarised their views in the paper recently published in the Journal of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for Development: "Is ‘access to adequate and equitable sanitation’ for all by 2030 achievable? Perspectives from sector experts on what needs to change to realise the Sustainable Development Goal".

We found these were the key blockages contributing to slow progress during the MDG era:

  • First and foremost was low political prioritisation. Sanitation was viewed as a private issue and a taboo topic; after all, most politicians would prefer to inaugurate a road or a school, and avoid association with toilets. This resulted in inadequate financing, low investment in capacity and weak institutional arrangements.
  • In addition, sanitation programmes were often implemented by NGOs independently of government systems, which frequently led to problems with long-term maintenance.
  • Many programmes focused on infrastructure, neglecting behaviour-change promotion or addressing it with blanket approaches. The habit of open defecation was not adequately challenged and many new toilets remained unused.
  • Existing programmes failed to reach the poorest and most marginalised people.
  • Urban sanitation services were entirely ‘off the radar', and received very little attention from national and local governments, local and international NGOs and researchers.

On the bright side, the experts interviewed highlighted that in the past few years, global prioritisation has drastically increased.  The inclusion of sanitation in the SDGs is a good example, but also the declaration of the International Year of Sanitation in 2008 and its recognition by the UN as a human right. As the sector’s profile rises, more donors are now willing to fund sanitation. The Sanitation and Water for All partnership is another example of high-level prioritisation; its initiative on collaborative behaviours is helping focus on strengthening government systems and get the entire sector moving in the same direction.

Still, political priority for sanitation is not yet high enough to reflect the scale of the challenge, but these kinds of political pushes should help address existing gaps and blockages.

Our consultation determined a set of priorities with urban sanitation at the top, followed by ensuring government leadership and sector harmonisation, getting the right SDGs monitoring mechanisms, developing institutions and capacities, working cross-sector and improving learning and debate. Internally, the sector also needs to change and operate in a more collaborative (seeking synergies and coordinating local interventions) and learning-oriented way.

If we are serious about achieving ‘access to adequate and equitable sanitation’ by 2030, the sector needs to make a bold move out of its comfort zone and rethink its ways of working to align with the universal access ambition enshrined in the SDGs and address the challenges and priorities outlined in the paper. The time is now!


Andrés Hueso is Senior Policy Analyst for Sanitation at WaterAid. He tweets as @andreshuesoWA.

He authored the paper "Is ‘access to adequate and equitable sanitation’ for all by 2030 achievable? Perspectives from sector experts on what needs to change to realise the Sustainable Development Goal", recently published in IWA Publishing's Journal of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for Development.

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