Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Everybody. Choice. Forever: Thoughts on a Sustainable Sanitation Service

Shared toilet in an informal settlement in Majes, Peru

To me, a sustainable sanitation service, in very general terms is one where everybody can get access to a toilet and associated toilet services (emptying, cleaning, upgrading)-of their choice-forever. A lofty goal, for sure, but one that sets in motion very different types of programs than a goal to give X Community a certain number of toilets at one point in time. This goal is shaping our sanitation work in Peru, which began with a sanitation market analysis in a region outside of Arequipa, in southern Peru, and implies working in a way that local systems-financial services, construction, ongoing maintenance-function without the not-so “invisible hand” of an NGO.

A sanitation market analysis simply seeks to understand the current supply and demand for a particular product or service, and what barriers exist to meeting existing demand: in this case improved toilet facilities and services. Using my rough definition of a sustainable service, we learned a lot from the research in Majes.
· Everybody: Everybody includes basically five different segments, or groups of people with distinct toilet aspirations, economic status, and cultural background. From the relatively wealthy land-owner who is interesting in emulating conventional water-based sanitation solutions because of status aspirations, to the migrant farm workers who are illegally occupying uninhabited land who literally just want a roof overhead when they go to the bathroom, we’ve got to find different solutions for each of these different groups, maybe even at different points in time. Moreover, when the common health impact goal of reducing disease is invoked, it must be remembered that unless everybody is using and maintaining a toilet, those assumed health benefits will remain assumptions, not result in fewer people getting sick. But, different segments will require different products/services, promotion strategies, and financing options-while we want to reach everybody, a one size fits all approach is exactly what we don’t want to do!
· Choice: Time and time again, the few evaluations of toilet programs that are done years after the construction is implemented show that people weren’t really interested in the free model being donated (or heavily subsidized). Some of the sectors in Majes had been beneficiaries 10 years ago by a government-sponsored, one size fits all, completely subsidized toilet program. Many people express their frustrations at the size of the latrine, the connotation that the latrine equates to ‘poor’, and that it is difficult to clean. Understanding what people want, and finding ways to provide that at affordable levels, is fundamental to ensuring that it is used forever. In Majes, we had people interested in biodigesting ecological toilets, mobile improved pit latrines, septic tank emptying services, and trash collection. Lots of demand, but not a lot of supply. I asked Felix Urena, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, this month what aspect of Water For People’s support was most useful: the small financial subsidy, the technical assistance with construction, or merely presenting different options. Hands down, Felix said, it was knowing that there were different options between a hole in the ground and a piped sewage network. Choice matters.
· Forever: Toilet programs tend to be measured on their very short term success. Construction of facilities-once. But communities grow, children get married, people migrate, and all of them will need toilets. Forever had a very different meaning for the different segments we uncovered in Majes: for those who have been there for 15 years and have invested significantly in their homes, durability is of utmost importance. For those who rent their homes, they are much less likely to invest in a permanent solution, but would like something in between a hole in the ground, and what I call a five star toilet-perhaps a mobile improved toilet.

How do you promote a system where everybody can choose their sanitation solution forever? If we had the answer, the 2.6 billion people we always talk about would have toilets, not rivers, train tracks, and bags to use as toilets. But, what we do know is that business as usual is not helping to get more people on the pot. So, Water For People is exploring if local entrepreneurs and small businesses can fill this gap-understanding what people want, designing for what people want and can afford, and offering ongoing services and/or upgrades over time. Stay tuned for what we learn along the way!

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