By Paul Bergeron

The International Water Association (IWA) recently issued a compelling report on the prospects of bringing city wide inclusive sanitation to developing country cities. The need for sustainable, equitable and inclusive sanitation solutions in urban areas across the globe is greater than ever before, particularly in the wake of the global health crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic, amid rapid urbanization and climate change effects. With such an achievement, all benefit from adequate sanitation service delivery outcomes, human waste is safely managed along the whole sanitation service chain, effective resource recovery and reuse are considered, a diversity of technical solutions is embraced for adaptive, mixed and incremental approaches, and onsite and sewerage solutions are combined, in either centralized or decentralized systems, IWA wrote.

A Call to Action: Regulating for City-Wide Inclusive Sanitation lays out the challenges that governments and organizations face in their tasks to square the circle of 2.1 billion urban dwellers, many of the poorest on the planet, who urgently need the human right of safely managed sanitation. At an estimated cost of $105 billion per year, according to the report, how is this to be delivered in a sustainable and affordable manner when affordability (and willingness to pay) is so limited, taxation rates are low and donor transfers are not increasing? For this article, we look at several domestic and global sanitation programs and provide industry experts who detail the feasibility of these goals when it comes to incentives, regulators and water treatment facilities.

Action needed to serve large populations
City-wide inclusive sanitation (CWIS) is a public service approach to planning and implementing urban sanitation systems to achieve outcomes summarized in SDG 6.2: safe, equitable and sustainable sanitation for all by 2030, irrespective of where people live within a city or what technologies are used to serve them. The proportion of the urban population living in slums or informal settlements worldwide was estimated to be 66 percent in low-income countries (37 percent lower middle, even 24 percent in upper middle-income countries), with the absolute number of people growing to more than one billion. The report states, “Meeting the sanitation needs of informal settlement dwellers and ending open defecation is a particular challenge relating to affordability and accessibility, where conventional water flushed sewerage is even more difficult and expensive to install and where non-sewered service options require regular access to pits or tanks for desludging. This is in addition to possible institutional prohibitions in serving informal areas.”

Proper incentives make a difference
Proper incentivization is needed to move such projects forward, said Laura White, Leadership Engagement Officer at IWA. IWA sees regulators as enablers of change and drivers for innovative investments and inclusive sustainable growth with the right enabling environment.. The challenges of regulating non-sewered sanitation are great, however. Empowering service providers, through regulator approved revenue incentives, to be able to access adequate investment for non-sewered sanitation (safely managed fecal sludge management), always in competition with the more politically attractive sewerage demands, is a significant regulatory challenge – with the outcomes likely to take longer than any would want.

In the ensuing CWIS works group of case studies, generally middle-income countries show an expectation to regulate (as in empower, with efficiency demands) the transition to sewerage, while still having significant non-sewered sanitation (NSS) challenges for most of their households. Those challenges include septic tank desludging practices and waste treatment for formal housing areas, while developing sustainable NSS services, still based on variations of pit latrines, for their islands of informal housing.

One example of a case study is Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System Regulatory Office (MWSS RO) in Manila, Philippines. “Tariff adjustments are the regulator’s major instrument for incentivizing performance,” said Patrick Ty, Chief Regulator, MWSS RO. The primary task of the Regulatory Office is to determine a reasonable tariff and to monitor the compliance of the concessionaires with concession agreements. The tariff rate is rebased every five years, with performance targets agreed as part of the negotiations around this. To further encourage infrastructure investments, the regulator also offered a financial incentive through an annual tariff adjustment for the next five years if they met their capital expenditure (CapEx) commitments. If they prove unable to roll out their CapEx agreements as agreed in the Tariff Schedule, they do not get their tariff adjustments until they comply.

The critical role played by regulators
Regulators are increasingly acknowledging that progress has stagnated, stalled by missing mandates and incentives to change. By expanding the scope of the sanitation services that they regulate beyond sewerage, they are beginning to drive sector transformation. If you are trying to promote a city-wide inclusive sanitation approach, the economic regulator for water supply and sanitation services should be regulating sewered and non-sewered solutions, including septic tanks and other on-site systems, and the CapEx associated with them, the World Health Organization told IWA. There needs to be an integrated plan for sanitation at city level, that incorporates the different solutions as well as the gradual evolution to safe and sustainable levels of service. This has been demonstrated by new approaches developed in Latin America by regulators such as CRA in Colombia, or by ESAWAS in Eastern and Southern Africa. “Many countries have already recognized the need to regulate out of the box to address the huge challenge of delivering universal access to safe sanitation services,” Gustavo Saltiel, World Bank, told IWA.

Yvonne Magawa, ESAWAS, added that achieving SDG 6 on universal access to sanitation requires a paradigm shift that focuses on the whole sanitation service chain and incorporates regulation of non-sewered sanitation service delivery. In this regard, ESAWAS has developed an inclusive sanitation regulatory framework and strategy from a regional perspective that synthesizes the experiences of eight countries and facilitates accelerated uptake for country-specific implementation. This is not a one-size-fits-all framework, but rather a reference point.

Diego Polania, Executive Director of Colombia’s Commission for the Regulation of Drinking Water and Sanitation (CRA) said his country’s utilities have evolved over time to serve the main cities with sanitation services, currently reaching about 93 percent of the population with sewerage. “This percentage, however, hides a lot of service gaps and inequalities, especially in peri-urban areas and informal settlements,” Polania told IWA. The challenge is how to reach the last mile: how to ensure access for the remaining seven percent and how to encourage service providers with good capacity to reach the most difficult areas in our cities and ensure good services.

Regulations should be adaptable
Polania said Columbia’s approach is one of flexible planning and adaptable regulation. “As a regulator, we cannot have a single uniform strategy for all areas,” Polania said. A differential approach is needed that incentivizes utilities to move into new areas to close service coverage gaps through incremental improvements and a clear performance plan showing how to get from point zero to a common standard for all, no matter how long it takes.

Aligning policies, institutional and regulatory frameworks (PIR) to create an enabling environment is crucial. The PIR-enabling environment – what surrounds regulation in terms of the strength of institutions, financial capacity, the policy and legislative framework and coordination mechanisms – in developed countries is different than that in developing countries. Different types of regulation need to be designed for different contexts, taking into account the technical and financial capacities in place.

Loga Veeraiah, a resource planning and engineering services executive for SPAN Malaysia, told IWA that the role of regulation in achieving SDG 6 is undeniably important. Good water governance through regulation is key to shaping informed decisions and to implement the necessary measures needed to achieve SDG 6 via political, institutional and administrative rules, frameworks and processes. Regulation can also pave the way for coordination between sectors to overcome a siloed approach toward water and sanitation management.

For example, many developing countries face multiple challenges when prioritizing water allocations due to needing to balance economic development with health and environmental goals. Fragmented institutional arrangements at multiple layers of the government with differing plans can result in contradictory or duplicate policies; a holistic and integrated approach to regulation can solve these issues and benefit many different sectors. Where water governance and regulation are still evolving, the implementation of SDG 6 has added value, creates opportunities and has paved the way to achieving an ideal, integrated water management system. Implementation efforts should be progressively scaled up through regulations, to institutionalize a comprehensive policy-making mechanism for water regulation, alongside economic, health and environmental objectives. Regulation and regulators can hold onto the global goals to shape policies, while the advancement and progress on the SDG agenda is achieved through local regulatory frameworks. Global policies and local regulations are mutually dependent on one another. They are what will ultimately allow us to succeed in meeting the 2030 targets.

Long-term planning needed for treatment plants
Professor Marcos von Sperling was recently honored with IWA’s Global Water Award during a presentation at IWA’s Digital World Water Congress. The award recognizes an innovative leader who has made a significant contribution to a world in which water is wisely managed. von Sperling, who works at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil, said there are challenges associated with the existence of wastewater treatment and implementing a new treatment plant does not guarantee success.

When the only aim is to implement treatment plants without adequate long-term planning, many treatment plants in developing countries have been simply abandoned and new challenges appear. When receiving wastewater at the treatment plants, in many cases, the coverage in terms of sewage collection is small and only small flows are collected and directed to the treatment plant, which has been designed for a larger capacity. In cases where coverage in terms of sewage collection is good, it may still be the case that sewage is not transported to the treatment plant, because there are insufficient interceptor lines at the bottom of the valley – they are more difficult to implement than the sewerage network itself.

In separate sewerage systems, he advises that one should reduce illegal connections of sewage into storm water drainage systems and of storm water into sewerage systems, as well as avoid overflows due to unwanted entrance of storm water and those due to power failure at pumping stations. “You must guarantee proper functioning of the treatment units, equipment and installations,” he said. There must be good maintenance infrastructure, which is frequently scarce at developing countries, especially at small communities. It’s also vital to guarantee a good operational level (training of operational staff, frequently neglected in several situations in developing regions). “You must monitor the treatment plant and actually use the monitoring data. Flow measurements and water quality monitoring is scarce in several treatment plants and it becomes frustrating when monitoring exists, simply to comply with legal requirements, but the data are not used and interpreted.”

Occupational safety for the operational staff and compliance with legal requirements in terms of discharge standards and water quality standards in the receiving water body is also required, von Sperling said. Incorporate removal of pathogenic organisms, if necessary. Pathogens are a major concern in developing countries; most treatment plants incorporate only the objective of removing BOD and COD. Incorporate removal of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), if necessary. Their removal is not trivial and requires the adoption of specific treatment processes. Incorporate the removal of organic and inorganic micropollutants (these are a more distant reality in developing countries). These countries need to be aware of the potential associated problems, but will likely have difficulties in including this in their agenda.

Adequately managing the produced sludge (sludge treatment and disposal are integral parts of wastewater treatment) and the produced biogas is required. Some treatment processes produce biogas, which needs to be handled properly to avoid problems of bad smell and greenhouse effects, as well as reducing operational costs, which may be tried if the plant is operating successfully. The savings could be used to implement or improve sewage infrastructure.

Look to expand treatment plants, if necessary. Population growth is important in many locations in developing countries, leading to an increase in the influent flows and pollutant loads. If the treatment plant becomes overloaded, its capacity needs to be increased, either by physical expansion or by implementation of operational control measures. “Maintain good relationships with the surrounding neighborhood and to try to treat the nearby population as partners and not as problems.”

Include the focus of circular economy and resources recovery through treated water reuse for agricultural, urban and industrial purposes. Produced sludge can be considered as biosolids, with a potential productive use (e.g. ,soil conditioner). Recover elements or compounds, considered as resources, instead of pollutants (phosphorus, sulfur, metals) and biogas (energy). Create a suitable environment for applied research of appropriate solutions for the reality in question, avoiding direct importation of solutions without a critical analysis. “Use any good experiences learned from developed countries and try not to use sophisticated solutions that will not be adapted to local circumstances,” he concluded.

About the author
Paul Bergeron has been a multi-industry reporter for 30 years, covering energy and sustainability, property management, global HR trends, small business, technology and horse racing. He currently is Executive Editor for his self-operated content marketing company, Thought Leadership Today in Herndon, VA.

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