Beyond toilets: improving water and sanitation begins and ends with the community

by Åsa Skogström Feldt | The Hunger Project
Friday, 18 November 2016 14:06 GMT

Zimbabwean children watch as their mother collects water from a communal tap in Harare, February 5, 2016. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Water and sanitation is fundamental to human survival, the environment and the economy, yet inadequate access to it kills and sickens thousands every day

Bad water and sanitation is one of humanity’s deadliest enemies. Nearly two and a half billion people still lack an improved sanitation facility and among them, almost 950 million still practice open defecation.

Water and sanitation is fundamental to human survival, the environment and the economy, yet inadequate access to safe water and sanitation services kills and sickens thousands every day. Girls are disproportionately affected, often denied their right to education because their schools lack private and decent sanitation facilities. Women and girls can spend a significant amount of time collecting water rather than engaging in more productive activities, such as attending school.

Without good water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sustainable development is impossible.

Yet efforts to improve sanitation with handouts and top-down approaches have been disappointing. Today in India, for example, where poor sanitation and contaminated water cause 80 percent of the diseases in rural areas, the government is providing new sanitary toilets to more than 60 million homes by 2019 as part of its “Clean India” campaign. In 2014, the government built more than 5.8 million toilets. Reports, however, show that many of them have gone unused or that they are being used to store grain or clothes or to tether goats.

So the question is, then, how can we improve WASH and make those improvements sustainable? The answer is not as simple as providing people with toilets. What has far greater impact is community-led approaches to development: using methods that involve local people in selecting, planning and implementing development programs.

Community-led development (CLD) and community-led total sanitation (CLTS) focus on the behavioral change needed to ensure real and sustainable improvements: investing in mobilizing people versus investing in the hardware. With these approaches, communities are facilitated to conduct their own appraisal and analysis and have a buy-in for its success.

And that is what is missing in India’s sanitation program: the mindset-shift; the recognition that behavioral change towards using toilets is the most important component of addressing the problem, and open defecation is unlikely to be ended by latrine construction programs that are not designed around the beliefs and social norms that currently exist.

Community-led total sanitation has been central in significantly reducing open defecation in Bangladesh. In conjunction with campaigns by the government, CLTS helped to virtually eradicate open defecation, with over 70 million people adopting safe sanitary practices in just over five years. CLTS has had success in reducing open defecation in Liberia, Ethiopia and Kenya and more.

At The Hunger Project, we focus on the mindset and behavior change, and we work alongside communities to build the infrastructure and systems they need to operate, and train them on the skills they deem most valuable. In San Luis Potosí City in Mexico, for example, communities have built their own eco-toilets after learning about different solutions and adapting them to their unique context. With training, they took the lead in development and implementation. This resulted in the total appropriation of the process, in personal empowerment and developing leadership skills.

While we have seen positive results of these approaches, the trend in funding has been towards quick impact programs that lack significant community involvement. As a result, nearly 40 non-profit organizations have formed the Movement for Community-led Development to raise the profile of community-led development, advocate for an enabling policy environment and funding, and gather and disseminate evidence.

Building toilets, simply, is not enough to address WASH issues. By engaging communities and seeing them as the “solution” rather than the “problem,” sustainable development can occur, bringing clean, accessible water and sanitation options to people everywhere, along with dignity and respect.