A People-Centred Approach to Citywide Sanitation

by James Tayler

Construction in Nakawa

As the global development discourse formulates the post-MDG agenda, sanitation is a core area that demands attention. Having for too long been neglected by governments, as is reflected by sporadic service and dilapidated infrastructure for the urban poor, it is one of the MDG’s that will not be met by 2015. Sanitation provision has a key role to play in creating the political and legislative conditions for well-located land to be made available to the urban poor. The work of the urban poor in Uganda, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania, India and many other countries across the SDI network demonstrates explicitly that sanitation is not just about toilets. It speaks to issues of equitable access and tenure security. If governments and urban poor communities provide sanitation facilities in partnership (as has been the case in countries like India and Uganda), then an in situ political and financial investment has been made in slum areas and, as a result, eviction (or relocation) become far less likely. Additionally, sanitation provision implies discussions around water provision, drainage, solid waste management and connections to bulk city infrastructure. 

Alongside evictions, inadequate sanitation is a central crisis in slums. For several decades the sanitation development framework was driven vertically by engineers, with those in greatest need of sanitation facilities given the least in terms of access, design, usage and management. SDI federations have begun serious local and national discourses exploring all elements involved in ensuring that slums are initially open defecation free, and subsequently, have adequate sanitation for all.

Debates about whether toilets should be located at the household or community level continue worldwide. Within SDI, the pragmatic sequence is as follows. 

  • For slum dwellers, sanitation is a governance issue. It is the duty and obligation of cities to ensure all fecal matter is collected and disposed of hygienically in a manner that is non-threatening for citizens and the city.
  • The present deficit is huge and cities having ignored the issue for many decades, which now makes initiating solutions very difficult.
  • Cities have to participate in the challenge of ensuring universally available sanitation. It is an essential contribution of community networks to document lack of facilities and engage the city to ensure sanitation access.
  • Infrastructure (water sewer lines), density, finances (of communities and the city) and available technologies are key factors in the choices that cities and communities make about the best approaches to sanitation provision.
  • In old, densely populated slums where houses are very small and sewerage access does not exist to clear fecal matter away, community toilets with safety tanks remain an imperfect solution. 

An incremental approach to informal settlement upgrading remains key to a long-term process that develops community capacity alongside infrastructure. Toilet construction and management has the potential to bring organized communities and local governments together in partnerships that have the possibility for replication in other settlements across the city. 

In addition, making a citywide impact through sanitation opens up the space for other relationships with government to be developed around associated services and infrastructure (e.g. solid waste management, grey water recycling or the provision of water).  Communities are also able to access upgrading funds and, as in India and Uganda, become the contractors who build, maintain and manage sanitation infrastructure. The momentum this generates has potential for both local and national policy reforms and articulations.  It is becoming increasingly clear that sanitation interventions and the partnerships that they create can lay the groundwork for partnerships and outcomes at a citywide scale. 


To read more about SDI affiliates’ work creating people-centred sanitation solutions at the citywide scale, check out the following blog posts & our Annual Report


Taking Water & Sanitation to the Citywide Scale


Project Diary: Kalimali Sanitation Unit, Uganda 

Improving Sanitation in Kinawataka Market, Uganda

Financing Sanitation Solutions in Uganda

Uganda Loses USD $177m Annually Due to Poor Sanitation: What is the Federation Doing?


In Tanzania, Scaling Up Sanitation for the Urban Poor 

In Tanzania, Reaching the Wider Community Through Improved Sanitation 

 Slum Dweller Federation of Tanzania Leads Construction of Public Toilet


In a Risky Place: Women & Sanitation in Nairobi’s Slums


SPARC’s Strategy for Community Toilet Block Construction & Maintenance in India

South Africa: 

Partnerships through Upgrading: 5 Cities Delegation Visits Langrug Settlement

Waterborne | Water & Sanitation in Slovo Park, South Africa