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In communities with no services, incremental steps can go a long way

When Rotary members tried to bring toilets to a remote island, the population wasn’t ready


In many remote places, toilets that are connected to sewers or septic tanks are the exception, not the rule. In those areas, toilets that operate without water seem like an ideal solution. So-called dry, or urine-diverting, toilets feature two or three holes: one for urinating, one for defecating, and, in some models, one for washing. They don’t cost much to operate, and they don’t smell. And both the urine and the solid waste can be treated and used as fertilizer. What’s not to like? 

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But when a group of Rotary members tried to bring these toilets to a remote island in Indonesia, the community wasn’t ready for technology that the Rotarians thought of as no-frills, but the intended recipients saw as overly complicated. “The community didn’t want it, and in fact the project had to be redesigned. It cost the project a couple of years,” says Mark Balla, president of the Rotary Club of Box Hill Central, Australia, and vice chair of the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) Rotary Action Group. “People thought it was a great idea but didn’t think about the cultural appropriateness. That’s so important when developing a project.”

Part of the problem was that the project made too ambitious a leap. One tool that could help is the sanitation ladder, a graphic representation of levels of sanitation service that might exist in a community. “It helps you visualize the progressive steps to take to raise up a community from having absolutely no services to having the highest quality and most reliable services,” says Erica Gwynn, the WASH area of focus manager for The Rotary Foundation. Developed by the World Health Organization/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene, the sanitation ladder concept can help Rotary clubs design a needs assessment, understand a community’s sanitation level, and set goals for a project.

The sanitation ladder shows the gradual steps communities may take in improving their facilities.

Source: World Health Organization/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which were adopted by UN member states in 2015 as a blueprint to a sustainable future, include the ambitious target of providing universal access to safely managed water and sanitation services by 2030. The target is easier to reach if sanitation services are assessed in gradations, rather than simply labeled as unimproved or improved. And the standard, well-defined service levels described on the sanitation ladder make it easier to compare progress in different countries.

At the bottom rung of the sanitation ladder is open defecation, whether it takes place in a field, forest, body of water, or other outdoor area. “A rainstorm is going to carry those feces across a wider range of space,” Gwynn says, “and with that comes the transmission of diseases.” Every two minutes, somewhere in the world, a child under five dies as a result of poor sanitation, poor hygiene, or unsafe drinking water.

“The impact of being at that bottom rung is drastic,” Balla says. On a business trip to India in 2012, he saw how the level of sanitation facilities can have all sorts of impacts beyond disease transmission, including contributing to educational disparities for girls, who may leave school when they reach their teens if there are no toilet facilities.

One step up is “unimproved” — that’s the disposal of feces in a pit or bucket. It’s more contained, but an unlined pit is still in contact with soil, and a heavy rainstorm will transmit diseases. And poop in a bucket has to be emptied somewhere. “It’s not really contained — it’s temporarily contained,” Gwynn says.

At the next step up the ladder are latrines that are shared among households; on this rung, facilities are designated as “limited.” This is an improvement over the two previous steps, but shared facilities are often detached from homes, which can lead families to feel less ownership and responsibility for maintaining the latrine. “It ends up filling up quicker, or sometimes one family can’t afford to pay to empty the latrine,” Gwynn says. “Often, we see long-term management of these facilities that is not optimal.”

Rotary members are helping improve sanitation in schools in Ghana through a partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The Partnership combines the business skills and local community leadership of Rotarian volunteers with the technical expertise of USAID.

Image by: Andrew Esiebo

“Basic” facilities, the next step up, include improved facilities that are not shared with another household. This goal looks at safety as well as access: latrines with lined pits that help minimize the spread of fecal matter and safe platforms such as concrete slabs that users can stand on without the risk of falling in.

At the top rung on the sanitation ladder, and the target of the sanitation-related Sustainable Development Goal, are “safely managed” facilities. At this level, not only does a household have access to its own toilet, but the waste is safely collected and treated. “Now we’re talking about the full cycle of what happens to your feces,” Gwynn says. Safely managed facilities solve many of the problems caused by shared facilities such as a pit latrine in a slum. That pit latrine may be lined and have a nice slab on it. But it fills up fast, and the way the waste is collected and disposed of is unsafe — somebody has to go into the hole and bring the waste out, and then it is dumped into a nearby river. “How are we protecting anybody any differently than if we did open defecation?” she asks.

Balla and Gwynn stress the importance of a needs assessment — a step that is required by The Rotary Foundation for any global grant application — to determine where a community lands on the sanitation ladder and where residents aspire to be. The community needs to drive the project in order to arrive at the most sustainable solution.

While the Foundation will not fund projects on the “unimproved” rung of the ladder, Rotary clubs that are interested in doing sanitation projects should be wary of jumping too many steps at a time. “We don’t always have to aim for the ultimate rung on the ladder, which is ‘safely managed,’” Gwynn says, although she notes that the final goal is to get there. “But sometimes it’s much more feasible and affordable to go one or two rungs up the ladder at a time. Behavior change is very difficult if you take too big of a jump.”

Balla also advises against chasing perfection. “Even in the United States, your toilet gets blocked sometimes. Perfection doesn’t exist,” he says. “It’s about continuous improvement. If you chase perfection, you’ll never start your project.”

• This story originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of Rotary magazine.

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