This section outlines the challenges of WASH service delivery in an urban context.
List the services which you consider essential in urban areas.
You may have thought of water supply, healthcare, electricity, telecommunication, and waste collection and disposal services.
The term WASH services includes supply and distribution of clean water, promotion and implementation of environmental sanitation, and promotion of safe hygiene practices to communities. Sanitation includes provision of latrines and other methods to protect health by preventing human contact with wastes. All three components – water, sanitation and hygiene – are important to ensure healthy community life. These services are also interdependent. For instance, handwashing with soap after visiting latrines is a safe hygiene practice. However, communities can only do this if clean water is available. Even when communities have an adequate supply of water, the lack of latrines can lead to open defecation and pose threats to health (see Figure 1.3). Contamination of water and the wider environment is the source of many diseases caused by micro-organisms found in faeces.
WASH services should ideally be provided for the whole urban area at all times. Lack of services in one small area can lead to significant risk of contamination of water or food. A disease outbreak in a poorly serviced area of town can quickly spread to better-serviced areas. Lack of WASH services therefore directly affects the health and well-being of whole communities. If not tackled, this will diminish low-income countries’ capacity to progress towards its goals for economic development. WASH services are issues of basic human rights and dignity, and reflect politically on local and national government.
The Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP), led by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO), monitors the progress in water supply and sanitation services worldwide.
In a small town of 35,000 people, approximately how many people would have access to improved latrines, and how many would not, according to the 2012 JMP data?
Approximately 24,000 people would have access to improved latrines and approximately 11,000 people would not. (The estimated population with access to improved latrines is 69% of the 35,000 obtained by multiplying 35,000 by 69/100, which gives 24,150 or approximately 24,000. The remaining people, i.e. 35,000 − 24,000 = 11,000 do not.)
Much more needs to be done to provide urban communities with WASH services of sufficient quality and quantity.
Challenges related to population size and characteristics
WASH service upgrade and expansion is slower than the rate of population growth, which puts pressure on the existing systems. As the services are shared by many more people, they quickly become inadequate and may break down.
Urban communities come from different backgrounds and have varying economic status. They are likely to be very mixed and include people from different ethnic groups and religions. Moreover, most people living in urban areas move frequently in and out of town. They may not feel they are part of a community or care very much about the place where they live. These characteristics make it difficult to raise awareness and understanding of basic service issues and pose significant challenges for mobilising people to change their behaviour and actions. You will learn more about the challenges involved in engaging and mobilising such communities and implementing behaviour change to promote good sanitation practices in Study Sessions 6, 9 and 11.
Challenges related to infrastructure
The key challenge to meeting the increasing WASH service needs in low-income countries’ urban areas is the availability of adequate resources, including finance and human resources that can provide and maintain the necessary infrastructures. The infrastructures required are:
- water supply system
- stormwater drainage system
- solid waste collection, transportation equipment and disposal sites
- liquid waste (including faecal sludge from latrines) transportation and disposal sites
- waste recycling or reuse equipment and facilities.
Water supply systems include developed water sources, treatment plants, storage reservoirs, and a network of distribution pipes delivering water to users. Growing population numbers and economic activity in urban areas mean that:
- Large amounts of investment are required to expand the capacity of these systems to meet the water needs of the population adequately. Mobilising sufficient funding is often difficult.
- Water sources, especially groundwater, may become depleted over time because of high extraction rates.
- Waste from industrial activities increases the threat of contamination of water sources.
Sanitation services include infrastructure for collection and safe disposal of liquid and solid waste. The amount of waste increases with the population size. Industrial activities also add to the type and composition of wastes generated. You may have noticed the excessive waste accumulated in different parts of urban areas. Figure 1.4 shows an example where rubbish and flooding have caused problems in a suburb of Accra in Ghana.
Wastes from residential areas and from industries often require treatment before being safely discharged into the environment. Faecal sludge from latrines or toilets needs to be transported, treated and disposed of safely. Most towns do not have a proper treatment facility or a suitable disposal site. In emerging towns, where agricultural processing is a growing trend, industrial wastes, for example from coffee processing plants and hide processing factories, are causing an additional burden. Wastes from such industries are often released into the environment without treatment.
Again, mobilising sufficient finance to expand services in a timely manner is critical to managing these situations, but is difficult.
Challenges related to governance
The term governance is used to represent many interrelated areas in government systems and refers to such things as the ways decisions are made and strategies are developed. Here, the focus is on responsibility and accountability of local governments in decision making to improve and effectively manage WASH services. Accountability means an obligation or a willingness by an organisation or individual to account for their actions and accept responsibility for them.
You have read that finance is a key resource needed to improve WASH services. Appropriate allocation of public funds between WASH and other sectors, such as roads, is a governance issue. Within the WASH sector, most of the budget goes to water-related works and the sanitation component is usually left with very little. Even the small proportions of resources available are spent on financing major infrastructure in urban centres where most of the rich families reside. This may mean that tax collected from the larger community is only benefiting a selected few, which is not considered fair.
Effective operation and management of urban WASH facilities is another challenge related to governance. In principle, WASH facilities are managed by service providers, such as water utilities and micro- and small enterprises (MSEs). These groups are expected to recover costs for operating and maintaining the facilities, but their performance is often below expectations. Service providers may not listen to the needs and complaints of user communities. Where services are not provided to the expected standard, the community’s motivation and willingness to pay the tariffs is reduced. This affects the capacity of the service providers to manage the WASH facilities and is a major challenge for governance.