Towards Brown Gold?: Reimagining off-grid sanitation in rapidly urbanising areas in Asia and Africa

Lead Research Organisation: Institute of Development Studies
Department Name: Research Department

Abstract

Once viewed as the 'the last taboo' in international development, sanitation is now considered pivotal for human wellbeing, productivity and health, and to realising all the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Currently, 4.5 billion people lack safely managed sanitation with about 700 million defecating in the open (WHO 2019) exposing them to various health hazards. Work and time burdens as a result of unmet or poor sanitation are disproportionate for these marginalised groups (especially women) who are not only users of inappropriate services, they are often the service providers of high-risk, poor quality sanitation facilities and infrastructure. BROWN GOLD focuses on marginality, sanitation and wastewater challenges in five growing towns in Ethiopia, Ghana, India and Nepal. While toilet coverage has increased in all these towns due to massive and capital intensive sanitation campaigns, they have neglected a portion of the population, in particular, poor residents, migrants, lower castes, landless slum-dwellers and scavengers who are still denied their basic rights to clean water and safely managed sanitation. They live in areas not connected to centralised systems and are unlikely to be in the foreseeable future. This has important social and health consequences for these communities linked to the invisible flows of dangerous pathogens and water quality contamination. We view these challenges as an opportunity to rethink and reimagine these off-grid areas that fall beyond central urban planning as a fertile ground for social and technological innovations that are people centred, sustainable, equitable and in line with the idea of the circular economy. Indeed, faecal sludge is rich in water, nutrients and organic compounds, but the potential of this 'brown gold' remains hidden in the sludge and thus largely untapped. We will explore ways to re-use shit with the view to ensure that these innovations help address the sanitation crisis, enhance local livelihoods and the local and regional economies and the well-being of the excluded and marginalised. The project asks:
1) How do local communities perceive, experience and live with off-grid sanitation challenges and how do these lead to processes of marginalisation?
2) Which kinds of socio- technical and institutional processes/ innovations are required to re-imagine shit as 'brown gold' in ways that are environmentally safe, economically viable and also tackle social exclusions?
3) How can these locally appropriate innovations be facilitated to be socio-culturally acceptable, and socially inclusive? What are the trade-offs?
4) What kinds of policy, business and regulatory frameworks enable/ disable the uptake, scaling up and sustenance of these innovations?

These questions will be addressed by an interdisciplinary team bringing together social science, law, engineering, microbiology as well as creative arts. We will facilitate bottom up socio-technical processes and innovations co-produced between user communities, private entities, state agencies and civil society. We will employ an innovative mixed-methods approach, bringing together ethnographic, participatory, creative, quantitative and scientific data collection methods to examine whether innovations to consider shit as a resource or 'brown gold' can be a lens to reimagine the city. The project will generate evidence, knowledge and learning that will be useful to a range of academic and policy audience.In the long term, it is anticipated that the evidence generated through this project will inform the local, national and potentially global policy discourses and strategies on WASH in non-networked urban contexts, strengthen people centred, and bottom-up views on delivering WASH and urban planning programmes and augment opportunities for cross-learning across countries in water, health and sanitation sectors,

Planned Impact

BROWN GOLD focuses on reimagining off-grid sanitation in growing towns in Ghana, Nepal, Ethiopia and India as spaces for agency and bottom up processes of innovation that are people centred, sustainable, inclusive, equitable and also contribute to economic growth. It seeks to address the invisible and dangerous aspects of 'being off grid' which exposes communities to various health hazards and leads to the negation of the human right to water and safe sanitation. Through its interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary focus, the project will generate evidence, knowledge and learning that will be useful to a range of academic and policy audience. Through wider dissemination and sharing, the project will aim to make this knowledge applicable beyond the country contexts of UK, India, Nepal, Ghana and Ethiopia.
The beneficiaries of the project include: (1) local communities residing in low-income or slum settlements in Africa and Asia who lack safe sanitation provision; (2) municipal and town planning agencies; (3) wider policy community working on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), urban planning and circular economy; (4) global academic community working on WASH, cities, science technology studies, microbiology , circular economy and artists working for social change. The project will also provide wider lessons for linking SDG 6 (water and sanitation) with health (SDG 3), and cities (SDG 11) broadly contributing to the reduction of inequalities (SDG 10) and addressing gender inequalities (SDG 5).
The immediate impact will be inclusive FSM planning and stronger engagement between local communities, civil society actors and municipal agencies through developing risk management frameworks, excreta and pathogen mapping, and performative and creative interventions (theatre, drama and art making). In all sites, the research will be co-produced with local stakeholders keeping the interest of the marginalised (women, manual scavengers, refugees and migrants) at the centre of the project. Focusing on their lived experiences with waste and shit, we will seek to facilitate bottom-up processes of change, through locally adapted feacal sludge management (FSM) and resource recovery and reuse (RRR). In parallel, we will also work with local agencies, service providers (formal and informal) to develop a sanitation value chain that is inclusive and recognises the fair treatment of informal workers (particularly manual scavengers and women) who bear disproportionate costs for FSM.
The evidence produced will also benefit the wider policy and academic community working on water and sanitation in different institutional contexts as well as those interested in peri-urban research, water and sanitation access, citizenship and rights, local and inclusive innovations as well as the application of inter and transdisciplinary methods spanning social sciences creative arts and natural sciences. Evidence will be shared via different policy (policy briefs, presentations at various policy for a, blogs) and academic (journal articles, working papers, conferences) platforms to facilitate outreach and communication. In the long term, it is anticipated that the evidence generated through this project will inform the local, national and potentially global policy discourses and strategies on WASH in non-networked urban contexts, strengthen people centred, and bottom up views on delivering WASH and urban planning programmes and augment opportunities for cross learning across countries on water, health and sanitation sectors.

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