A tale of clean cities: New WaterAid research shows how Vizag is successfully tackling the urban sanitation challenge

WaterAid/Adam Ferguson

New research from WaterAid has identified how cities like Visakhapatnam (Vizag) are tackling the ever-growing urban sanitation challenge posed by rapid urbanisation, and have successfully used Swachh Bharat to lead the way in getting access to toilets for everyone across India.

With nearly a third (31%) of India’s population now living in urban areas, city infrastructure is struggling to keep up. A tale of clean cities: insights for planning urban sanitation from Ghana, India and The Philippines explores ‘what works’ by examining how three cities have made significant strides in ensuring access to sanitation services for all urban dwellers.

Rapid urbanisation in Visakhapatnam led to almost half the population living in slums. This strain on resources resulted in water scarcity and problems with sewage and open defecation. The desire to transform the once small fishing village into the financial capital of the state of Andhra Pradesh inspired political buy-in, which drove initial investments in sewers and the treatment and reuse of wastewater, but failed to reach poor neighbourhoods.

The launch of Prime Minister Modi’s Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission in 2014, and the Smart Cities Mission later on, marked a turning point, which spurred the city to commit to becoming open defecation free and providing disposal services to those not connected to sewers.

VK Madhavan, Chief Executive for WaterAid, India said:

“Over 770 million people in India lack access to decent sanitation, having a huge impact on health, with 140,000 children dying each year from diseases caused by dirty water and poor sanitation.

The Swachh Bharat Mission, has the highest political commitment driving it, and can make a very positive impact in areas where the foundations are in place. There is a willingness to address the core issues of access to water, sanitation and sustainable management of waste – particularly for those with low-incomes and the marginalised. A significant beginning has been made and the campaign needs to be matched with effective local institutions of self-governance, finances and a focus on those who need these services the most.”

WaterAid’s report aims to provide guidance for municipal authorities, national governments, donors and development agencies to support the UN Global Goal to ensure improved sanitation for everyone everywhere by 2030.

Strong leadership proved key to success in all three cases, be it from the mayor or the head of the waste management department. While rapid urbanisation poses huge challenges, the pressure it causes can actually be positive, driving demand for development. Efforts were also driven by financing opportunities, such as commercial competitiveness or tourism, and even by crises, such as outbreaks of disease.

Findings also showed uneven progress along different parts of the sanitation chain, such as access to toilets, emptying septic tanks, and treating the faecal waste. Inadequate financing and a lack of coordination between municipal departments are frequent obstacles. Furthermore, the urban poor and those who live in challenging areas are being left behind.
NGOs such as WaterAid have an important role to play in providing financial support, stimulating greater accountability, and building capacity.

Andrés Hueso, Senior Policy Analyst for sanitation at WaterAid, said:

“Fifty-four per cent of the world’s population now live in cities, putting major strains on city planners to extend drinking water and sanitation services to all.Visakhapatnam is a shining example of how cities can ride on the wave of Swachh Bharat and overcome these immense challenges.

Our research shows there is no one size fits all when it comes to ensuring sustainable sanitation services in urban areas. However, the ingredients to success include strong leadership, with key drivers being national political influence, economic motives, and the pressure posed by rapid urbanisation. City sanitation planning is important, but is not a silver bullet. Planning must be adapted to the specific context and phase of sanitation development, and be linked to financing opportunities to avoid it being treated as a tick box exercise.

One worrying shortfall identified is that the needs of the urban poor are rarely a top priority. WaterAid believes we must always aim to reach the poor and most excluded people, ensuring sanitation services reach everyone everywhere by 2030.”

All three cities are success stories in their own ways and provide useful insight to learn from.

Ghana is making huge strides in development, but a lack of progress in water and sanitation is holding it back. However its second-largest city, Kumasi, has bucked this trend, almost eradicating open defecation. Demand from traders, transient workers, and migrants for proper toilets, as well as their ability to pay for them, led the city to invest in public toilets through public-private partnerships, supported by development agencies, and driven by commercial competitiveness.
In San Fernando, La Union, in the Philippines, the desire to maintain the city as a popular tourist destination drove demand to keep the beaches and water clean and provide good sanitation services. Strong leadership from the Mayor helped develop environmentally-friendly strategies and policies. They have implemented multiple models to address the needs of the different areas of the city, and introduced a sanitation tax, with a positive impact on city-wide sanitation.

See the report, click here.

To download photos of city sanitation, click here.

Toilet Facts

44 per cent of the total population in India still defecate in the open.

Open defecation causes chronic diarrhoea that leads to stunting.