Why do sanitation projects never scale up? | Infrastructure news

Every day, we hear about pilot projects that kicked off with great pomp and fervor, only for the infrastructure to be found lying in states of disuse a few weeks, months and years after the photo-ops have passed.

By Jennifer Williams, executive director, Faecal Sludge Management Alliance

According to a 2018 study by Oxfam and the Water, Engineering and Development Centre (WEDC) at Loughborough University, 40% of women and girls were not using emergency latrines built by humanitarian agencies. This is because they were inaccessible, unsuitable and/or unsafe and is a story from many different places in the world. It is what is fundamentally wrong with international development pilot projects and why there is the saying that, “pilots never fail and pilots never scale.”

There are currently over 3.6 billion people who lack access to safely managed sanitation services. And much of that unsafely managed human waste ends up in water ways or sources of drinking water. We need new technology that is better adapted to climate change but that also means we need a new approach in how we introduce projects into communities; one that will actually ensure that these technologies will be used.

Imagine there is a low-income community and while they do have access to drinking water, and they have do not have toilets in their house. So, well-intentioned non-governmental organisations (NGOs) come and install toilets in many of the households in the community. Someone comes from the NGO and poses for their photo op, which is published in the local news and there are many smiling faces. But that’s only part of the story. The well-meaning NGO doesn’t fund any water supply, waste treatment processing, community education, nor operation and maintenance funding. So, the toilets remain largely unused because the NGO installed flush toilets and there is not enough water to flush with. Intentions don’t always solve problems.

A little while later, the government installs a water tank so now all the residents have water to flush with and can now use the toilets in their home. Except, there is no treatment and the human waste flows through pipes directly into the river where people fish. The river is now polluted and carrying pathogens that will make people sick if they come into contact with it.

Now imagine another company goes to the same community to install new technology community toilets. But they do not conduct a feasibility study because it’s a corporate social responsibility (CSR) project and shouldn’t the residents in this low-income community just accept the gift that is being given to them? The toilets are installed during Covid, so the team isn’t able to travel to the community. Again, there is no community education and no plan for operation and maintenance. The company is based in a country where they receive a subsidy for the cost of electricity. No one bothers to check the local rate of electricity where the unit is installed but it is significantly higher. The new toilet treatment connected to the toilet block ends up costing the community several hundred US dollars per month. Far more than you or I pay in our homes. There is resentment now from the community because they have to bear this added cost. And because there was no training of the community operators, they unplug the system to lower the cost of electricity. No one told them that the machine has to stay on, or the treatment process stops. They regularly turn the machine off when they think it is not in use, which stops the treatment process and the wastewater is no longer treated.

These are sadly not unique experiences, but experiences from international development projects around the world. New approaches are needed as even the best intentions, can lead to negative unintended consequences and a proliferation of pilots that will never fail nor scale. The factors that led to this outcome were not technical – they were human and user error. These can be easily fixed.


Failure should be seen as an opportunity to learn lessons before scaling up. The eThekwini Municipality in South Africa serves as a good example. Between 1996 and 2001, the municipal boundaries of eThekwini (around the city of Durban in South Africa) expanded to include an additional one million residents, mostly in underserved rural areas and informal settlements. There’s an understanding that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work to provide safe sanitation to everyone and this is why pilot programs in the municipality are only carried out when there is an 80% chance of success. It’s only once they are successful that they are rolled out at scale.

Unfortunately, governments and donors might have different incentives, the ballot can be punitive if governments fail to address the needs of constituents. Donors do not actually want to provide funding for the elements that would help better ensure both real success and the ability to scale. Pilots are designed for photo ops and feel-good press—they are not designed to scale. The artificial constructs and barriers that donors have created prevent the very outcomes they say they want to see—meeting the sustainable development goals (SDGs.)

Market research shows us that the opportunity is huge for new technology, but it needs to be introduced in a smart and thoughtfully planned way that includes community operator education; a feasibility study estimating the operation and maintenance (O&M) costs, including basic expenses like electricity; a trained O&M service provider; and financing for O&M contracts. Without these four key elements, pilots are bound never to scale leaving us steps further from reaching the SDGs.

Another key reason for our collective failure is the reluctance to openly discuss projects when they do not go well or have unintended consequences. These types of stories never go into the grant report or the press release.

We need a paradigm shift from all the stakeholders involved. Firstly, governments need to stop working in silos and plan water projects together with sanitation projects. Funders need to fund O&M costs for any infrastructure they pay to install along with community education and training for the O&M provider. NGOs need to think through the entire sanitation value chain—just installing toilets is not enough. We need safe transport and treatment to ensure we do not contaminate water resources. We will not have clean water until we have safely managed sanitation.

We must make this change urgently as the clock ticks down to 2030 and climate change accelerates. There is still time to learn from our mistakes and make a change, but it will require a shift in several different types of policies, more coordination, and more education. Our earth is facing increasing uncertainty and if we learned anything from Covid, it is that outdated approaches are no longer serving us.

Additional Reading?

Request Free Copy