On World Toilet Day let’s re-imagine ‘shit’ as ‘brown gold’

Published on 20 November 2020

Lyla Mehta

Professorial Fellow

World Toilet Day, on 19 November, raises awareness of the estimated 4.2 billion people globally living without safe access to sanitation. This year’s focus of World Toilet Day is on sustainable sanitation and climate change.

This is an important focus because as outlined in UN Global Goal 6 (water and sanitation for all by 2030), sanitation goes beyond ‘access to toilets’ to include tackling unsafe excreta disposal and the lack of adequate infrastructure for sewage and wastewater collection and treatment. While global sanitation efforts have increased toilet coverage especially in urban areas, they have often by-passed the poor and marginalised and excluded people because of their gender, caste, ethnicity or class. The capital-intensive and centralised nature of conventional sewage and wastewater collection and treatment systems have especially failed those living in informal settlements who are not connected to centralised systems (and unlikely to be in the foreseeable future). The sanitation workers delivering services in these settlements are often themselves from marginalised groups (e.g. Dalits in India). They  suffer from discrimination, lack of dignity and status, and are disproportionately exposed to health risks including Covid-19. The pandemic has laid bare these existing problems and inequalities, whilst also increasing the risks for poor and vulnerable communities and the sanitation workers that serve them.

All these issues make sustainable and safely managed sanitation in rapidly growing urban areas a huge intractable challenge in global development.

Re-imagining off-grid sanitation in urban areas

Brown Gold, an innovative, new project funded under UKRI’s GCRF Collective Programme which launched today. It combines social science, law, engineering, microbiology and creative arts, to address the challenge of sustainable and safely managed sanitation in rapidly growing ‘off-grid’ urban areas in Ethiopia, Ghana, India and Nepal.

Its starting point is to re-frame ‘shit’, a polluting and harmful waste product to be disposed of, as ‘brown gold’, a resource rich in water, nutrients and organic compounds, that can make a real contribution to the development of sustainable cities. Rather than focusing on the visible aspects of being on-grid in terms of hardware, toilet connections, and treatment systems, its focus is on the invisible and dangerous aspects of being off-grid. This includes invisible and powerless citizens who are denied their basic right to sustainable sanitation as well as the invisible flows of dangerous pathogens due to poor toilets and unsafe containment of shit and wastewater.

The aim is to rethink and reimagine these off-grid situations as a fertile ground for people-centred, sustainable and equitable innovation. Faecal sludge is rich in water, nutrients and organic compounds, but usually this resource remains hidden in the sludge. The hope is that reimagining the problem creates not just the possibility for new innovation in delivering good quality sanitation services but that it also promotes circular-economy driven sustainable sanitation to encourage resource recovery and reuse in informal settlements – turning ‘shit’ to gas or fertilizer for example. The creation of these sustainable economic opportunities might in turn lift the status of the sanitation workers and excluded residents in informal settlements.

This reimagining is also an exciting opportunity for truly interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work bringing together social science, law, engineering, microbiology and creative arts expertise, with partners in each country who will work closely with local community groups, state agencies, civil society and the private sector.  The project paused work this year due to the pandemic. We hope that we can begin fieldwork from the second half of 2021 to generate original insights on sustainable sanitation and help realise basic rights to sanitation, better recovery post-Covid, and greater equality in rapidly urbanising contexts.



The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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