The United Nations has a specialist unit to measure and monitor progress on provision for water, sanitation and hygiene, the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP). JMP’s regular progress reports are an essential stocktake that enables us to assess the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6. Unfortunately they are often congratulatory rather than critical, leading to complacency rather than action. This is particularly true of the 2017 report and its discussion of affordability.
To recap, the Millennium Development Goal 7 called for halving (by 2015) the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. It did not mention affordability. SDG 6 mandates the world to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water, and access to adequate and equitable sanitation by 2030. Affordability is mentioned in the context of water, and implied for sanitation. But sadly, the goal’s indicators do not require measurement of the costs and access. In the context of extreme poverty and commodified basic services, consideration of affordability is critical. Adequate access without affordability is meaningless and risks making us believe that SDG 6 has been achieved when it has not.
Basic services in urban areas in the Global South are increasingly provided on the basis of cost-recovery and services are acknowledged to be particularly expensive in Sub-Saharan African, where incomes are low and poverty rates high.
In low-income neighbourhoods in African towns and cities, the consequences of high prices are evident. These are frequently neighbourhoods that are informal, in or close to the inner-city areas, that struggle with very high densities and poor quality buildings. In some cases they are served by informal water vendors, but increasingly public utilities are reaching out to supply households, sometimes with piped connections but more commonly with water kiosks or stand-pipes accessed through some kind of pre-paid meters and tokens. Even when household connections are provided, they may also be managed through pre-paid meters.
Toilet facilities are also lacking in such neighbourhoods. Typically if toilets are provided, they are shared facilities within a plot that includes multiple tenancies and perhaps the landowner. But the only option for many households is pay per use toilets.
Faecal sludge management problems are acute because most of these areas lack sewerage. The JMP estimates that in 2015, 40% of urban households across the world did not have access to sewered sanitation; given that almost all urban areas in the Global North have sewers serving all their population, this percentage is higher in towns and cities in the Global South. For the least developed countries, only 7% of their urban population have sewer connections. The cheapest solution is typically a pit latrine; and the cheapest solution to a full pit latrine is to let it overflow. This is especially likely in heavy rains which (it is hoped) speedily remove the waste from pavements and pathways. While the implicit expectation is that pit latrines are either closed when they are full or the land owner contracts an emptying service, that may not happen and the waste may simply be dumped at the first opportunity.
This is reality for many of the 1 billion of the global population living in informal settlements, and particularly the 370 million living in Sub-Saharan Africa’s towns and cities. So, what do we learn from the Joint Monitoring Programme 2017 Progress Report?
- The affordability of water is simply not being taken seriously
Two pages are given over to the analysis of data problems. Attention is drawn to the percentage of income that is being spent on water and sanitation services. Concerns are noted with respect to the numbers paying over a given percentage of their income; and promises are made to better capture this data (page 20-21). But the most simple calculation is ignored: what is the price being charged for the quantity of water required to meet basic needs which WHO estimates to be 23 litres per person per day? Surely data on this quantity of safely managed water has to be available? The focus on the percentage of income is misleading because this may not result in sufficient quantities being consumed. The report concludes that 71% of the global population has access to a safely managed drinking water service (page 3). But this says nothing about whether or not they could afford to use it. Universal access can only be achieved if adequate quantities of water are affordable.
Discussions with many of those living in informal settlements reveal the problem. In part this is related to the lack of public provision. In Mukuru, one of Nairobi’s largest informal settlements, 80% of households buy from public and private vendors, purchasing an average of 60 litres a day (1.8 cubic metres a month) for a monthly cost of KES 507. Only 6% have water piped to the plot; the price of water purchased in jerry cans is, on average, 338% higher than piped supplies.
In Gobabis, Namibia, a member of the community recently explained to me that they are charged N$16 per cubic metre for water. With monthly incomes averaging between N$1350 and N$2000 ($100-$140 a month), then at about 10% of income, it is clearly going to be difficult to afford the 10 cubic metres required for adequate household consumption.
- The affordability of sanitation is similarly neglected
Costs related to sanitation may be even more acute. Costs are incurred in access to toilets, and to remove faecal sludge from the site. There may also be charges for depositing the faecal sludge in waste treatment facilities (which helps explains illegal dumping). Charges per use are typically the equivalent 2 to 5 cents in US$. This seems insignificant but add up the number of times toilets are required each day (say five per person) and the number of members in the family (say six) and this apparently insignificant charge aggregates to a daily amount of between ¢60 and $1.5, and a monthly amount exceeding $15. Given that rental charges for a single room in Africa’s largest cities are typically between $15-20 a month, and the lowest income households only rent one room, then it is evident that pay per use sanitation is unaffordable. Unfortunately JMP’s sanitation ladder (page 2) makes no reference to affordability. Consistent with this, there is no engagement with these issues in the Progress Report.
- There is inadequate attention to faecal sludge.
Indeed, the ladder for sanitation appears paradoxical to those familiar with sanitation challenges. More attention is given to whether or not toilets are shared than to the removal of faecal sludge. Rental patterns mean that urban households are used to sharing and shared toilets are frequently kept in good repair and cleaned by residents. What is more important is if there is a toilet within the plot or if only pay per use facilities are available to the household, and how the faecal sludge is managed.
The Progress Report does very usefully acknowledge the need to do more about faecal sludge management, although there does seem to be inadequate attention given to on-site sanitation in urban settings. An estimated 24% of urban dwellers have what are termed improved on-site facilities. However, high densities mean that this may be an overestimate (pages 28 and 33) and the Report acknowledges that data is lacking and hence it is not possible to say what proportion of on-site facilities are safely managed (page 29). Recent research in unplanned low-income settlements in Dar es Salaam found that 88% of households had traditional pit latrines and 8% improved pit latrines. Across all households, only 34% of residential properties had the potential to safely empty pit latrines, with both physical access to the plot and local availability of emptying services. In 28% of properties, the pit was fitted with a drain pipe for emptying faecal sludge into the lane when it rained. The Report makes the bold assumption that where there is no data on whether sewer connections reach a sewer line to be transported to a waste treatment plant, it is assumed that this does take place (page 30).
- The gains in sanitation in urban areas are overstated because informal settlements themselves were not consulted
The Progress Report raises concerns about inequalities between urban and rural areas. JMP stresses how a higher percentage of urban dwellers have ‘improved’ or ‘basic’ sanitation than rural dwellers. But this is only because the criteria set for what constitutes improved or basic sanitation includes a pit latrine with a slab. This should not be considered “improved”, especially because inadequate attention is given to affordabilities and faecal sludge management in dense urban areas. The perspectives presented here are everyday knowledge to the hundreds of millions living in informal settlements across Africa and beyond. A more considered engagement with representative organisations of informal settlement dwellers would allow such mistakes to be addressed.