Creating Climate Resilient Cities through Safe Sanitation – World Toilet Day 2020

wooden slums in Jakarta stand along the side of a river polluted with trash.

Multiple authors came together to co-write this blog for World Toilet Day, which looks at how COVID-19 and its impacts highlight the need for investments in urban sanitation improvements, sitting at the nexus of globalization, urbanization, and climate change. The piece was co-authored by:
Katrin Bruebach, Global Director, Programs, Innovation & Impact, Resilient Cities Network,
Femke Gubbels, Senior Manager, Engagement & Programs, Resilient Cities Network
Arne Panesar, Sector Program Sustainable Sanitation at Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ)
Annkathrin Tempel, Advisor at Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH

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Just as commerce knows no border, disease respects no social construct.  

Soap, scrub, rinse, dry, sanitize – repeat. Who knew that in 2020 we would still be learning how to wash our hands properly? In a year that seemed so futurist at one point in time, so elusive and far off, we find ourselves grounded to the very essence of humanity. 2020 was the year during which important decisions on climate were supposed to be made. Now, 2020 will be the year of COVID-19.

COVID-19 has shocked the world. Across the globe, the pandemic has threatened cities and communities, not only endangering public health, but also disrupting the economy and the fabric of society. The pandemic should serve as a wake-up call that, as awful as this moment is, climate change could be worse and far more persistent. The effects of climate change, like this pandemic, will manifest in many ways beyond environmental impacts. We must anticipate these impacts, including places we may not want to look, such as our most essential sanitation systems.

An estimated 4.2 billion people worldwide live without access to safely managed sanitation. This is a global threat.[1] And nearly 9% of the world’s population still practice open defecation.[2] Urban population growth continuously outpaces gains in improved sanitation access globally. Imagine what this could mean for the future spread of infectious disease.

Climate variability and change exacerbate these risks by straining sanitation systems, and therefore must be considered to ensure sanitation technologies and services are designed, operated, and managed in a way that minimizes public health risks. Climate change projections indicate changes to the timing, intensity, and spatial distribution of weather- and climate-related events. Increasing global and regional temperatures have the potential to increase the frequency, intensity, and duration some severe extreme weather events, to increase variable and unpredictable precipitation, and to increase mean sea-levels (IPCC, 2014a). These changes affect sanitation systems and the infrastructure, water resources, water services, and other social and governance systems on which sanitation depends. Many of the direct and indirect effects on sanitation pose a danger to human health and development.

Today is World Toilet Day, a day that celebrates toilets. This year it aims at rising awareness that everyone must have sustainable sanitation that can withstand climate change and keep communities healthy and functioning. It is about taking action to tackle the global sanitation crisis and achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030.

A corrugated tin shack serves as a latrine in Kampala, sitting on an earthen foundation, in a dirt square of a semi-rural slum.

Sanitation Challenges by Region

Major shortfalls in water and sanitation, as well as overcrowded and poorly housed communities are causing grave concern over the eventual scale of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts. In this context cities in developing countries are the most vulnerable because of their limited social, technological, and financial resources.

Many cities in the Global South struggle to deal with the most basic municipal task of managing human excreta. Some are effectively “drowning” in human waste. Nearly one billion people live in urban slums with poor or no sanitation. Urban population growth continuously outpaces gains in improved sanitation access globally. This can no longer be considered a challenge facing only urban slums, or some far off place, distant from our own home. As we have seen with the pandemic, our world is globalized. Just as commerce knows no border, disease respects no social construct.  

Inside a wooden outhouse, bright light shines through small slates, illuminating a rough toilet with a wooden lid.

Climate change is an additional hurdle in ensuring urban populations’ access to safely managed sanitation services. Inadequate and poorly maintained sanitation infrastructure in urban informal settlements leads to serious health hazards during heavy rains and flood events, because communities are often not prepared to cope with and recover from such events. Pit latrines and septic tanks may collapse during floods or can’t be properly used when filled with water. What is more, the technologies currently promoted for improving access to sanitation are vulnerable to climate-related threats.

In the Northern hemisphere, changing temperature, precipitation patterns, sea level rise and storm-related changes impact wastewater treatment systems. Extreme weather events such as heavy precipitation lead to more untreated wastewater, and flooding can damage physical infrastructure. Droughts and limited water availability impact piped sewer networks, as they need sufficient water for operation. As such, the necessity for wastewater management is continuously increasing. Extreme climate events like droughts are also adversely affecting water availability, leading to acute water shortages around the world. It is against this background that wastewater treatment and reuse are becoming increasingly significant, not only to protect water resources from contamination, but also to augment freshwater use.

Climate Resilient Sanitation  

The lack of safely managed, climate-resilient sanitation is a reality many must endure. It is a silent crisis that impedes not only universal access but also the realization of the urban transformation framed in SDG11. To make progress, we need to understand how sanitation impacts the functions and form of cities and how it supports economic development and promotes equity.

Climate resilient sanitation systems are able to withstand the climate challenges of the future, but also leverage benefits beyond those of a well-functioning toilet connected to a sanitation system that takes away and deals with human waste. Resilient sanitation systems are an important part of a circular economy, due to the integration of energy production and resource recovery. As such, they provide solutions for turning “waste” into resources, and thereby have the potential to contribute to the mitigation of a city’s greenhouse gas emissions, save finite resources, and create business opportunities and jobs. They also leverage nature-based solutions or are designed as a park to reduce visual impact and invite the community to visit, sparking conversation about water scarcity and climate change.

behind a flooded field, dotted with palm trees, a cement house and a cement outhouse sit just above the floodwaters

The most resilient systems not only are able to keep all communities healthy and functioning throughout unanticipated shocks and stresses and minimize environmental and social negative impacts. They also create co-benefits and are designed to leverage social, economic, and environmental benefits, informed by desired outcomes beyond business-as-usual approaches. Resilient urban systems take into account how the future will look and address multiple challenges at a time. They allow us to future proof our cities. Technology, though not a panacea, is an essential component of climate resilient infrastructure.

City leaders are already pushing for these types of creative, multi-benefit solutions. We cannot afford to focus on infrastructure alone, locking users into unsustainable systems. We must deploy both old and new solutions in smarter ways.

While the physical assets of the sanitation system are an important part of it, there is a large human or social aspect that lies at the core of a resilient sanitation system; people all over the world want and need confidence that they can rely on their wastewater being taken away. Society needs confidence that these services will be provided today and in the long term, without compromising the natural environment, and more widely, that decisions made today will not impoverish future generations. This puts water and sanitation service providers and their performance, as well as local governments and administrations, at the center of a resilient sanitation system. Besides the right technologies, we need to ensure that the institutions and people that manage sanitation systems have the knowledge and capacity to do so, have proper regulations in place, effective financing mechanisms, and the information and monitoring systems that allow for a climate-smart decision-making and management.

Urban sanitation has a fundamental role to play in achieving the SDG goals identified above. Business as usual will fail to deliver the kind of sanitation that underpins the envisioned urban transformation, by operating at too small a scale and focusing on infrastructure alone rather than on city-wide solutions. What is required is a radical shift in mindsets and practices towards an urban sanitation approach that impacts political priorities, funding, planning, design, management, and governance.

A Partnership to Identify Solutions  

Resilient Cities Network and the Sustainable Sanitation Program of the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH jointly commissioned a study to improve the understanding of interlinkages between climate change, urban resilience, sanitation systems, and sanitation service provision. This study aims to raise the visibility of urban sanitation in the international climate change discourse and to highlight its importance on urban resilience. Together, we will develop knowledge products that will be made public and disseminated widely to inform work undertaken in cities around the world and to encourage a long necessary conversation.

As cities are learning, we are too. We are identifying ways to help cities improve sanitation based on long-term environmental, social and economic benefits. This shift will require engagement of all stakeholders, including all citizens, rich and poor, informal and formal, to facilitate the availability of universal urban sanitation services. This is critical for equity and human rights, but also because the consequences of inadequate sanitation eventually affect everyone, as excreta-related pathogens spread easily across dense urban environments. Further, with the population projected to increase by another two billion people within 40 years, we need bold and resilient solutions now.

Resetting in a Post-COVID World

This is an opportunity to reset. Greater attention needs to be paid to link between climate change and sanitation, as well as to the interconnectedness with other key systems. The global sanitation crisis does not happen in isolation. We urgently need to fill gaps in knowledge and improve practice. And we need a more comprehensive evidence base that will allow us to support planning of locally appropriate sanitation and wastewater systems that take into account a broader range of climate impacts and support the transition towards a more climate neutral water and sanitation sector. Climate change brings challenges, but it also brings the opportunity to design the resilience necessary to improve sanitation for the billions of people currently without access.

Who would have guessed that a global pandemic would come along to bring the sanitation crisis back onto the international agenda?  On this World Toilet Day, we invite you to join us to accelerate action and raise the level of ambition on global sanitation service provision in the context of climate adaptation and mitigation.

Additional Information


[1] WHO/UNICEF (2019): Joint Monitoring Programme 2019 update report: Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene: https://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/publications/jmp-report-2019/en/

[2] WHO/UNICEF (2019): Joint Monitoring Programme 2019 update report: Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene: https://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/publications/jmp-report-2019/en/

4.2b

billion people worldwide live without access to safely managed sanitation.

9%

of the world’s population still practices open defecation.

~1b

people live in urban slums with poor or no sanitation.

Creating Climate Resilient Cities through Safe Sanitation – World Toilet Day 2020