Rurality as a vehicle for Urban Sanitation Transformation (RUST)

Lead Research Organisation: Cranfield University
Department Name: School of Water, Energy and Environment


Delivering basic services, for example, water, sanitation and energy, to urban populations remains a significant public policy and planning challenge in India. This is especially the case for the 65 million people living in informal settlements or slums, as well as over 300 million people living in areas which have urban-like features but are administratively classified as rural. A significant proportion of these people were recently living in rural dwellings whilst some may still seasonally migrate back to rural areas for livelihood. In such cases, they retain strong socio-economic and cultural ties to rural areas.This project believes that this rurality can be a driving force for sustainable urban transformation, especially in the area of improved and productive sanitation, which is an area of particularly acute need in India.

Rural communities have been shown to be more closely connected to their natural environment, partly because their livelihoods are often more dependent on it, as compared to urban communities. This relative closeness to the natural environment has been connected to more sensitivity around appropriate resource use as well as preferences related to open defecation. Building on that thinking, this research will try to understand whether there are major differences in urban, newly-urbanised and rural populations in relation to sanitation and human waste management. For example, it will examine whether there is potential for more circular sanitation systems that views waste as a resource i.e. as a fertiliser in agriculture, recycled products etc in newly-urbanised communities as compared to more settled urban areas.

We will approach this research through developing three spatial transects of a Tier A1 megacity: Hyderabad. Each transect will cover the different zones of Hyderabad from the centre out into the rural areas of Telangana. This study will use a combination of participatory, qualitative and quantitative methods to assess ecosystem services, sanitation and human waste reuse perceptions and practices, and economic and institutional factors along each of these transects.

A key feature of the research will be the integration of this data onto interactive maps through the ESRI Story Maps platform. These will be used to structure co-analysis sessions with policy and planning stakeholders to examine spatial differences in sanitation across the city. Through these exercises we will co-design new policy and planning frameworks that will bring together urban and rural sanitation into a holistic system. Ultimately, the project is designed to help develop workable solutions that will enable urban planners, managers and policy-makers to provide better services to urban populations with safer (improved public health) and productive (improved economic benefits) sanitation systems.

Planned Impact

The project will deliver new theoretical and conceptual understanding about the role of rurality as a driver of urban transformations as well as evidence-based guidance on driving improvements in sanitation policy within Indian megacities. This makes it relevant for a broad range of direct and indirect beneficiaries. At a local-level the immediate beneficiaries will be the public authorities armed with new co-produced knowledge and insights to inform urban-rural sanitation policy especially for newly urbanised communities. This includes our participants in the City Stakeholder workshops, including representatives from the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board and Telangana Public Health & Municipal Engineering Department.

These beneficiaries will co-design the project e.g. through selecting a transect, and co-produce the outputs e.g. through joint analysis of data. This will provide them with new evidence and a space for dialogue that will enable them to create new solutions for delivering sanitation in difficult contexts. This has the potential for long-term transformational impact to arise from the project with more appropriate sanitation systems as an intended legacy of the project. For this type of engagement the role of Dr Mekala as our Impact Champion is important as she has established working relationships with sanitation agencies at both city, state and national level with both Governent and non Government sector stakeholders.

At a higher level the indirect beneficiaries include national civil servants e.g. at Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, planners e.g. NITI Aayog, civil society organisations e.g. WaterAid India, and researchers e.g. Centre for Science and the Environment. The research holds relevance for these groups as they implement, support and research the national Swachh Bharat policy programme for improved sanitation and a healthier, cleaner India. These types of beneficiaries stand to benefit through the demonstration and validation of a novel but transferable methodological approach for studying and interpreting urban management issues that can be reapplied in different cities or contexts. Further the study involves advanced technical methods and tools which will benefits the civil engineering students of Hyderabad city as they can witness the process during the survey. Efforts will be made to involve and engage such students in the project.

At a global level, broader indirect beneficiaries will be the circular sanitation service providers e.g. SOIL Haiti, INGOs e.g. WaterAid, and governments e.g. Government of Bangladesh, that require new evidence and perspectives on how best to extend services for populations in the context of rapid urbanisation. Direct beneficiaries at a global level will also be the academic and research communities building on the conceptual and methodological advances delivered through the project.

A range of communication and engagement techniques and platforms have been identified to engage with all beneficiaries. This includes the availability of our online transect maps (visualised through the ESRI Story Maps platform) for a minimum of seven years available for anybody with an internet connection to analyse them. More directed strategies include the City Stakeholder Workshops, active contribution to national online platforms e.g. India Water Portal and India Sanitation Portal, and international online platforms (Sustainable Sanitation Alliance SuSanA), co-produced policy briefs and planning frameworks, and five high impact journal papers.


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Martínez-López J (2019) Towards globally customizable ecosystem service models. in The Science of the total environment

Description Although the main data collection phase of the project is currently underway, an initial key findings has emerged from conceptual and analytical work with secondary data. This has focused on understanding the role of nature in processing sanitation waste within cities. Using 48 case studies from cities across the world (spanning 82.0 million people), we show that nature plays a vital role in sanitation. Our results indicate that, on average, 13-26% of sanitation in cities across Africa, Asia and the Americas is exclusively performed by ecosystems, and in some cities this is up to 80%. Across 15 cities (35.3 million people), we conservatively estimate that nature is responsible for sanitising a total of 2.2 million m3 of fecal sludge per year, saving each city approximately 1.4±1.6 million USD yr-1 (n=8). However, since we only quantify entirely natural aspects of sanitation, we underestimate the true extent of the role that nature plays in sanitation both within our case studies and across the globe as integrated sanitation services sanitising pathways (i.e. infrastructure and nature) are neglected. Only by quantifying how nature supports all aspects of sanitation can we identify synergies and trade-offs between SDG 6 with other SDGs; e.g. understanding how land-use decisions (SDG 15) may have knock-on effects for hygiene and human health. This initial analysis is already submitted to a journal and we are awaiting response.
Exploitation Route Moving forward, investing in supporting and strengthening natural sanitation services may prove more cost effective and sustainable than some investments in man-made sanitation infrastructure. This would have implications for public policy, planning and engineering of sanitation solutions.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description Although at an early stage of the project, the conceptual ideas and methodology were shared with high-level municipal stakeholders in Hyderabad, including directly with the Commissioner of the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Authority and Head of the Hyderabad Water Supply and Sewerage Board. These bodies have a planning framework up until 2020 and now working on the next iteration up until 2025. The discussions held and ideas proposed on developing circular sanitation systems across urban and rural areas are being fed into such planning activities.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description GCRF Capacity and Capability Award
Amount £15,648 (GBP)
Funding ID S44906 
Organisation Bangor University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2019 
End 06/2019
Description Institutional GCRF Research Grant
Amount £10,000 (GBP)
Funding ID P12579 
Organisation Cranfield University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2019 
End 07/2019
Description ScienceAlliance - Enhancing capacity to report science technology within Alliance Earth: Bangor University ESRC Impact Acceleration Account Knowledge Exchange Fellowship
Amount £17,800 (GBP)
Organisation Bangor University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2019 
End 02/2019
Description Engagement with Alliance Earth 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact ScienceAlliance activity originated from three pieces of research associated with Bangor University. In May 2018, Willcock participated in an expedition to Mozambique (, part-funded by Bangor University. On this expedition that Willcock met Jeffery Barbee (Alliance Earth - a not for profit scientific and environmental reporting initiative working globally under an environmental education remit; This impact activity builds on this, linking to two existing Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded projects: MobilES - Using mobile-phone technology to capture ecosystem service information (ES/R009279/1), and RUST - Rurality as a vehicle for Urban Sanitation Transformation (ES/R006865/1). Being ESRC funded, both projects are socio-economic research. The disciplinary areas of focus are: human geography, development studies, environmental planning, and social statistics, methods and computing. MobilES aims to understand who is using natural resources and where in Cambodia. RUST investigates how sanitation services vary across a rural-urban transect in India. Both projects use Open Data Kit (ODK), a cutting-edge method of social science data collection being validated against more traditional methods as part of MobilES.

ScienceAlliance was designed to facilitate a two-way knowledge exchange between Bangor University and Alliance Earth. These activities will focus on Dr Willcock (PI and Co-I of the underpinning research) and Mr Barbee (Director of Alliance Earth), and was broken down into two parts: 1) Knowledge exchange at Bangor University - Mr Barbee visitted Bangor University for two days (January 24th-25th, 2019). Dr Willcock introduced Mr Barbee to the cutting-edge underpinning research (e.g. how social science can benefit from mobile phone technology). Mr Barbee led a scientific communication workshop for Bangor University staff to enhance our impact with non-scientific audiences. This activity was very successful and generate lots of interest among Bangor University staff. Impact captured via post-workshop feedback forms (see Appendix 1). 2) Knowledge exchange in the field - Together, Dr Willcock and Mr Barbee visited the RUST and MobilES study sites in India (February 4th-8th) and Cambodia (February 11th-15th). This first-hand experience deepened Mr Barbee's understanding of the cutting-edge methods developed in these projects, enhancing the ability of Alliance Earth to carry out scientific and environmental reporting about these technological innovations. Additionally, Dr Willcock gained a deeper understanding of the processes involved in scientific journalism. Willcock learned how to better explain his work to a lay audience and how to capture images useful for the media.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Rurality as a vehicle for Urban Sanitation Transformation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Seminar presentation as part of the School of Natural & Social Sciences Seminar series. The aim was to explain to colleagues and other researchers the project context, research problems and research design. The presentation involved a report on the research approach, challenges and progress and provided time for questions, comments and discussion.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019