So what makes a toilet sustainable?

A couple stand smiling outside of their newly built sanitation supply business

Today on World Toilet Day, we celebrate the role of safe, accessible toilets as a building block of healthy and resilient communities.

But today is not just about toilets, it is also about the important role of the systems and people that surround and support adequate toilets to ensure they are sustainable and can withstand the impacts of climate change.

Believe it or not, they are a crucial part of building resilience of communities to endure and recover from the increasingly severe impacts of climate change. Impacts that are getting worse - flood, drought, cyclones and rising sea levels are threatening sanitation systems – from toilets to septic tanks to treatment plants.

Everyone must have sustainable sanitation that can withstand the effects of climate change and keep communities healthy and prosperous.

This is why it is so critical to  reach the 4.2 billion people around the world who lack access to safe and sustainable toilets, particularly those who are most excluded either economically, socially and/or geographically, and therefore the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

World Toilet Day is not only about toilets, it is about sustainable and accessible sanitation; it is about clean water and good hygiene that go hand-in-hand with sanitation and together, build healthy and resilient communities, and a strong defence against COVID-19.


World Toilet Day isn’t just about toilets, it’s about the systems that surround them

Water for Women WASH Specialist, Matthew Bond reflects on how far sanitation has come


Our Water for Women partners are working hard to ensure that all people within communities not only have access to a toilet, but that the systems that support and maintain toilet infrastructure are robust.

Building sustainable and resilient sanitation is happening in many different and interesting ways through our partners’ work, designed to suit the local context and conditions of the project areas in which they are operating, across 15 countries in Asia and the Pacific.


How can we build greater sustainability?

Sanitation isn’t simply about toilets; it is about the people, systems and resources that surround and support them long term.


Where do we begin?

Sustainable sanitation begins with a toilet that effectively captures human waste in a safe, accessible and dignified setting. But even this starting point is not so simple - a toilet is only as good as the people who use them – there are a number of reasons why some people in the community may not be able to access a toilet once it is built. Some examples include:

  • A toilet may not be designed in a way that people with disabilities can access and use them.
  • A toilet may not have appropriate menstrual hygiene facilities, which may make it difficult for a menstruating woman to use or it may mean that the toilet may get blocked from sanitary pad disposal which makes it unusable for everyone.
  • A toilet may be built far from the house or not designed in such a way that ensures privacy, which puts women, girls and other vulnerable family members at risk in using it.
  • Women and people from marginalised communities may not have been consulted in the design, location and technology of the toilet, which may compromise their ability to use it (as per the examples above) and the sustainability of the toilet itself (eg. the male head of household choosing a pour flush toilet in a water scarce environment, where the cultural expectation is on women and children for water collection).
  • Decisions may not have been made from the outset about who empties the toilet if it is a pit toilet, so it is no longer used once it is full.

As you can see, there are a number of complexities inherent in the examples above when it comes to a toilet that effectively captures human waste in a safe, accessible and dignified setting.

However, one thing is clear; for all of these examples, women, people with disabilities and people from marginalised communities need to have a stake in the decision making about what makes a toilet safe, accessible, hygienic, and private. Only then can it truly be sustainable for all. This is still a challenge in many parts of the world, which is why there remains 4.2 billion people who we must reach with safe and sustainable sanitation. And the work will not stop there.


What happens when the pits fill up?

For many remote and rural areas, it is pit toilets that are most common. If households have a toilet, they also need to have a plan for, and a culture of, emptying their pits safely. In South East Asia, both iDE (Cambodia) and Thrive (Cambodia & Vietnam) are building this consideration into the toilet models and services they offer. SNV in Lao PDR illustrates the important role that private sector entrepreneurs, in particular women, can play. Not only do these women sell toilets, they are also changing behaviour about how to use and maintain them and behaviours that keep households healthy. There are promising early findings from this approach showing that female sanitation entrepreneurs are playing a trusted and influential role in communities to encourage greater understanding of and motivation for access to sanitation.


What if a toilet needs fixing or to be re-built or upgraded? 

An innovative approach to building long-term sustainability is private sector partnership. Water for Women partners are stimulating private sector businesses to build up their interest and capacity to provide sanitation goods and services to rural communities. Once businesses can see the revenue stream and profit associated with this market, they will be there in the long-term to help households and institutions sustain their sanitation infrastructure. iDE is supporting business growth and empowering businesswomen in Cambodia to drive this market.


What about the role of Government?

Sustainability is also about accountability. Is the toilet still working in a year’s time, in five year’s time? Is it being used as intended? Does it meet the needs of the person using it? Is there associated proper hygiene behaviour being practiced? Governments can and should play a role in monitoring these issues related to the sustainability of infrastructure. Whilst it may not take a long time to build a toilet, it is important to put in place the systems that monitor the longevity and effectiveness of the infrastructure we are helping construct. This information and evidence can inform ongoing policy and financing designed to achieve sustained access. This is why our partners are working with governments in their projects – everyone has a role to play in sustainable sanitation. The fruits of this collaboration can be seen in milestone achievements such as SNV’s work in Lao PDR, which has recently seen fifteen district governments commit to province-wide ODF by 2024 during a Savannakhet Provincial Health Department-hosted meeting which was supported by SNV.


And how does sustainability address the challenge of climate change?


Sustainability means greater resilience

When households initially take responsibility for their sanitation infrastructure, this often leads to rudimentary facilities that have a short lifespan and can require regular rebuilding. Water for Women partners are supporting communities as a whole to access finance, commercial materials and the appropriate expertise to build or upgrade their toilets and make them more resilient to seasonal and extreme weather. Some partners are also looking at low-cost sanitation that is suitable for particularly challenging environments, such as flood-prone areas.


Local solutions are needed for local contexts

Some regions such as the Pacific are particularly water-scarce and climate change will only exacerbate that, so it is important to explore ways of providing toilets for low-water contexts. Habitat for Humanity in Fiji and CFAR and RTI in India, are exploring toilets that reduce the amount of water required. Such approaches have a strong gender dimension, as there is more often than not the gendered expectation that women and girls have responsibility for collecting water and cleaning toilets, as highlighted above. Again, this comes back to ensuring women, girls, people with disabilities and people from marginalised communities are involved in decision-making about technological options to ensure that solutions are truly sustainable.


And how are we going to deal with all this shit?

Currently, 80% of the wastewater generated by society flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused. How can we create systems that reduce the amount of methane being released by this waste? Wastewater and sludge from toilets contain valuable water, nutrients and energy. But there are many ways we can be using and treating waste more effectively.

Monash and Emory’s work in informal settlements in Suva, Fiji is looking at the whole sanitation system to reduce community exposure to contamination. They are upgrading all toilets to a sealed septic tank and have constructed a wetland system that provides primary and secondary treatment before discharging effluent into the environment. Making sure all households have access to a toilet, and connecting all toilets to a wastewater treatment system, is key to ensuring safe and healthy living environments for all. They are collecting data and consolidating their learning as they go, which will contribute to a toolkit for gender equitable and socially inclusive co-design of WASH infrastructure, including sanitation, in informal urban settlements.


So what makes a toilet sustainable?

The answer is complex and there are many innovative approaches that are striving to inform the answer. For some ideas, it is too soon to tell how well they will last and we must effectively monitor the outcomes of our work ongoing to answer that question conclusively.

What we know for certain is that it is not just about toilets, but the systems, people and resources that surround them, sustainability will come from those elements working well together.



Photo: An equitable business is a sustainable business, Ms. Romdol Sovan and her husband proudly show off their newly expanded sanitation supply business! (Tyler Kozole, iDE)


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