We Need a New Gold Standard for Urban Sanitation: Brian Arbogast

More than half the global population lacks access to safely managed sanitation services – 4.5 billion people. Every year, more than 340,000 children under the age of five die as a result of this problem. And we’re not solving it fast enough, says Brian Arbogast, director of the water, sanitation and hygiene program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Frankly, just getting people to acknowledge that it’s a very high-priority problem that needs addressing is one of the key barriers,” he says in an interview for the Cities Research Seminar Series. “People don’t want to talk about toilets.”

Wastewater treatment plants and sewer systems have become the “gold standard” for urban sanitation, but Arbogast says these complex systems “simply aren’t working for most developing cities,” given the amount of land, energy, water and money it takes to construct and operate them.

“So,” he says, “we need to build another gold standard.”

The Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge has worked for several years to develop a new generation of toilets. These creative models promise affordable costs; internal treatment systems that work independently of any grid (electrical, water or sewer); and valuable byproducts, like usable water. Other innovations championed by the Gates Foundation include small-scale treatment plants, new fecal sludge treatment technologies and better ways to empty pit latrines.

These innovations may help countries like India, Bangladesh, South Africa and China, which have started prioritizing sanitation issues in recent years. Building on this momentum is crucial, says Arbogast, because it’s “driving a lot of attention and great new innovative ideas.” A recent case study in the World Resources Report, “Towards a More Equal City,” for example, shows how Kampala leveraged a fecal sludge vacuum device called the Gulper to treat 32 times more human waste than previously, often from pit latrines, without major new infrastructure.

The Gates Foundation has partnered with organizations such as the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education to create online courses and curriculums that train civil engineers in alternative approaches to sewage treatment in addition to standard wastewater treatment plants.

Investing in urban sanitation brings more than just health benefits. Arbogast points out that it also delivers “amazing economic returns.” The global economy loses nearly $260 billion a year due to poor sanitation, says Arbogast; India alone loses more than 5 percent of its GDP. Investing just one dollar in sanitation provides a global economic return of more than five dollars.

Arbogast also stresses the “benefits to dignity and to quality of life” that come with prioritizing sanitation in cities. Ultimately, he says, this wealth of benefits needs to be highlighted “by all sectors – civil sector, private sector and public sector – to help make sure that addressing these sanitation challenges is really a top priority.”

A forthcoming paper in the World Resources Report will cover sanitation in more depth, exploring whether improving access for the underserved can benefit the entire city.

Hillary Smith is an intern on the communications team for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

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