Does sanitation always have to have a business case? This question struck me while listening to Patricia Arquette during her Masterclass with Alisa Keesey at the Berlin October 2023 Human Rights Film Festival. There had been an earlier screening of the film Holy Shit: Can Poop Save the World, a documentary by Rubén Abruña. In this film, he travels to 16 cities on four continents, learning about what happens to our excreta when we flush. Abruña showcases faeces as a good source of energy and fertiliser alternative to fossil fuels and how safely managed sanitation can protect water and the environment from contamination. The film features container-based sanitation solutions promoted by the Give Love Foundation, founded by Patricia Arquette and Alisa Keesey.
During the Masterclass, Patricia spoke poignantly about the transformations that sanitation has made in people’s lives. Women and girls in East Africa could now use safe and secure compost toilets without the fear of rape or sexual harassment when having to go far to defecate openly. A community of polio survivors in Kampala living with severe physical disabilities experience a newfound dignity because they can now use container-based toilets in the privacy of their homes without the need to be carried to dirty and hard-to-navigate public pit latrines. Girls attend school freely all month long because there are clean places to manage their menstruation in schools. Her examples were many and very compelling.
While the mainly young Gen Z audience attentively and thoughtfully listened to Patricia and Alisa, I reflected as a seasoned WASH professional. Over the last decade, a trend has been to validate sanitation projects through their bankability, scalability, and business case. Yet we know that many people are being left behind and that we need to meet SDG targets. Providing sanitation in hard-to-serve contexts such as slums and refugee settlements is challenging, and efforts are required to improve waste treatment facilities in most rural areas.
I pondered that sanitation nowadays is preoccupied with creating sanitation enterprises, unlocking finance for sanitation, or assessing market-based sanitation solutions. These are taglines featured in current international WASH conference programs. However, Patricia spoke about human rights and the dignity aspects of sanitation, which are the fundamental basis of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Like many working in the WASH sector, I am committed to striving to reach the SDGs and not only a business case.
The current WASH sector funding favours market-based solutions. It requires sanitation to demonstrate a primarily economic value, resulting in human rights and the protection of water resources becoming a secondary consideration. I questioned whether the focus on privatisation of WASH services, private sector engagement and strengthening the ecosystem for small and medium-scale WASH enterprises has taken the emphasis away from human-rights-based programming. Might subsidies for smaller and more localising investments also have the potential for impact? Has the shift towards the business side of sanitation also absolved some governments of their responsibilities to be duty-bearers for these rights? Has the simultaneous trend to devolve sanitation responsibilities to the sub-national or local levels without deconcentrating and decentralising resources further absolved national ministries of their mandate? Has this transition let local authorities and poor communities seek commercial financing and the private sector to cover the gap and finance the solution? I also pondered the cost of water pollution and degrading watersheds, which provide life and livelihoods for millions of people and animals. These thoughts left me with a lot of questions.
Patricia’s reflection during her Masterclass in Berlin made me think about whether sanitation always has to have a business case. I agree that it doesn't because it is a human right, first and foremost. As the film shares, we have many practical solutions to address sanitation, pollution, and other aspects of sustainable development. As sector professionals, we have a collective duty to the millions without access to clean water and safe toilets. We cannot easily capture the benefits and opportunity costs of providing sanitation to those right-holders in a project monitoring form or an OECD final evaluation. However, these benefits far outweigh any business case.
Please note that this Blog post is an opinion article and represents the authors own opinion and not Viva con Aqua’s view. More information on Viva con Agua’s programmes can be found at www.vivaconagua.org.