Today is World Toilet Day. It’s a day to focus minds on the fact that 4.2b of our fellow humans still lack access to the basic need of safely managed sanitation; to reinvigorate efforts to reach the SDG target of safe and equitable sanitation for all by 2030; and to shine a light on entrepreneurial enterprises innovating better answers to the global sanitation crisis.
That’s why I’m pleased to have had a hand in important new research, which, I hope, will help to remove a major barrier to scaling container-based sanitation (CBS) enterprises, which are vital to making safely managed sanitation accessible and affordable to some of the world’s least-served populations.
In case you’re not familiar with CBS, it’s a service-based business model built around provision of standalone toilets that store waste in sealable, removable containers. CBS enterprises provide the toilets and maintain a managed service for the collection of full containers, their replacement with empty ones and the transport of full containers to facilities for safe treatment, disposal or reuse of the collected waste (an excellent example of circular economy principles).
Whether toilets are provided in people’s homes (household-level CBS) or as facilities shared by multiple households (shared CBS), it’s a model ideally suited to urban slums and other hard-to-reach locations. In short, it reaches people and places that other forms of sanitation often can’t.
CBS already ought to be a much more prevalent answer to the question of how we provide equitable access to safely managed sanitation for all by 2030. Cited by the World Bank, an EY report from a couple of years back – The world can’t wait for sewers – has helped make significant headway, contributing to formal recognition of household-level CBS as a “safely managed” form of sanitation by the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) for Water Supply and Sanitation (the official UN body that monitors progress toward SDG6).
However, a big barrier to scale remains…
Many governments, funders and investors still think of sanitation as they do other public infrastructure investments — i.e., involving high upfront capital outlay, with smaller ongoing costs for operation and maintenance. With CBS models typically the exact opposite, this has led to misconceptions that they’re more expensive over the long term than traditional forms of sanitation, such as pit latrines, septic tanks and sewers, thus hampering investment.
But what if that wasn’t the case?
Enter this new research, carried out for the Container-Based Sanitation Alliance (CBSA), which compares the direct costs of CBS vs. other in-market sanitation options across low-income communities in Haiti, Ghana, Kenya, Peru and Madagascar. Analysis reveals that CBS can, in fact, be provided at significantly lower cost than pit latrines, septic tanks and sewers – and well below the World Bank’s benchmark for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) affordability.
Compared with sewer connections, safely managed, household-level CBS models examined cost between 37% and 83% less per household per year. The majority, specifically those operating at scale, are also less expensive than pit latrines and septic tanks, by up to 38% and 74% per household per year. Shared CBS services compare even more favorably, costing 65%, 79% and 93% less per household per year than household-level pit latrines, septic tanks and sewer connections respectively.
What’s more, CBS is still a relatively immature technology compared with these other more established forms of sanitation, and there’s every reason to believe that even greater economies of scale can be achieved.
So what does this all mean?
Myth dispelled that CBS models are more expensive to implement and maintain than safely managed sewers, septic tanks and pit latrines, it should mean that governments, funders and investors do more to create the conditions for CBS to thrive and fulfil its true potential to scale. That includes building policy and regulatory frameworks that:
- Endorse CBS as an essential component of city-wide, blended approaches to sanitation provision (on which front significant progress has already been made in Kenya)
- Enforce provision of safely managed sanitation for poor and marginalized communities
- Incentivize creation and support of markets for the reuse of waste
- Encourage public-private partnership to provide CBS enterprises with more reliable revenue streams and lower their costs of capital and customer acquisition
Just as was called out in another previous EY report — Make way for the future of sanitation — it includes developing more innovative, outcomes-based financial instruments that can encourage greater investment in the sector – blended financing that recognizes the challenges of operating an innovative utility focused on the urban poor, and that emphasizes social impact over financial returns.
In the case of shared CBS models, it also includes encouraging the JMP to disaggregate its criteria for safely managed sanitation. At present, this highest-level classification requires all three of the following:
- Hygienic separation of excreta from human contact
- Safe treatment or disposal of waste
- That the sanitation facility is not shared by more than one household
This dictates that no shared sanitation option can currently be classed as safely managed, even if it hygienically separates waste and provides for its safe treatment or disposal. Nor do these criteria account for other dimensions of safety – for example, resilience to climate variations, such as floods, which can render pit latrines, septic tanks and sewer lines unusable.
Separation of JMP criteria would support clearer recognition that shared CBS models are, in fact, safely managed across multiple dimensions, helping to encourage further investment in these models, as well as household-level ones. Since shared CBS models are frequently deployed in the lowest income communities, and may be the only viable means to significantly improve the safety and quality of sanitation in those locations, this would be a hugely important and valuable development.