If sanitation is an engineering problem, it would be already solved | Infrastructure news

The Tamil saying ‘Nothing grows under a Bayan tree’ rings true for the sanitation crisis. We need a complete paradigm shift (moving away from the old Bayan Tree) to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6.2. There is a need for a fresh, fertile meadow where saplings or juvenile trees can flourish.

Authored by Jennifer Williams, executive director, Faecal Sludge Management Alliance (FSM)

SDG 6.2 aims to achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations. And yet, 4.5 billion people do not have access to safely managed sanitation. The sewer systems that many of us are used to are failing due to aging infrastructure that cannot be easily replaced. Why do we continue to literally flush clean drinking water down the drain to move our shit across cities for treatment?

Continuing to use the sewer system is the same as using MS-DOS, but not by choice. We need to drastically shift our thinking and paradigm if we hope to solve the sanitation problem in this lifetime, let alone by 2030.  Over the past decade, the only visible solution implemented at scale is the ventilated pit latrine.

Beneficiaries are consumers

There is an underlying equity issue at play – the idea that poor people don’t deserve something better because they should be grateful for anything.

In 2015, Rubayat Khan wrote an article in the Guardian, that discussed the important distinction between ‘beneficiary’ and ‘consumer’ and the power dynamics that are associated with each.

What has survived in the world of global development is the treatment of clients as ‘beneficiaries’, not consumers. There seems to be an expectation that if you do not pay for a service in cash, you at least owe unquestioning gratitude.

Contrast this with how a business – even a business exclusively catering to the same poor people – would design its products. It would spend countless hours doing market research, identify real problems, develop prototype solutions and market test-them through several iterations, then continuously examine data on everything from sales volume to customer satisfaction. The company would even make minor tweaks to the product’s scent or packaging to appeal to the rural consumer’s tastes.

Khan goes on to explain that the moment one makes the mental shift from beneficiary to customer or client, the power dynamics also shifts. So does the approach to working with communities. The solution design also changes, and one brings in established methodologies like behaviour change, community engagement, and user-centered design. Ownership and accountability also shift, as now the beneficiary is seen as a buyer, who has purchasing power (albeit maybe limited purchasing power) but is also the owner of the solution, and therefore responsible for its upkeep.

We’ve made strides but we still have a long way to go.

Technical and social approach

The initial deadline for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals was set for 2030, which is now just 8 years away.  The recent global Covid-19 pandemic caused a lot of the world to quickly shift their thinking and what we at the FSM Alliance observed was how many of our established ways of thinking and our approaches showed the limitations of a siloed approach.

The current sanitation problem has largely been approached by engineers as a technical problem. Our failure to provide improved access to sanitation has been mostly viewed as not having the right technical solutions. But despite more than 20 years of work, we still don’t have 100% safely managed sanitation.

Scientific American published an article written by engineering student, G. Wickerson, on the limitations of looking at the world’s problems from only an engineering perspective or viewed from the framework of technical-social dualism, the idea that the technical and social dimensions of engineering problems are readily separable and remain distinct through-out the problem-definition and solution process..” There are numerous nontechnical parameters that must be considered when thinking about sanitation planning like the taboos surrounding sanitation and the core of our nature as humans to hide our waste or if we are lucky, to flush and forget about it.

Deepok Chopra has been viewed as controversial at times in the medical community, however, I found his quote below on how we move forward very relevant to how sanitation has been viewed in the past. We use reductionist mental models that break up complexity into small pieces to examine the components of things at ever finer levels of granular detail – hoping we can put them back together coherently. But escalating crises prove we have exhausted the usefulness of this paradigm. Almost every major challenge humanity is facing, from cancer and climate change to food and consciousness, needs complex systems thinking to solve.

The City-Wide Inclusive Sanitation (CWIS) framework has also pushed our sector to expand out from purely an engineering point of view. “With its focus on equity, a CWIS approach challenges investment and service delivery norms that have excluded many communities and marginalised groups from safe sanitation facilities and services. A CWIS approach includes their interests and voices as core objectives of and resource for planning, design, and implementation of services.” The CWIS framework also pushes us to shift our thinking to systems change approach, as opposed to an engineering approach.

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