A Systems Approach to Sustainable Sanitation Challenges in Urbanising China (SASSI)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Environment, Education and Development


Sanitation systems are entangled with social, technical and ecological systems at smaller and larger scales. How they are planned, implemented, managed, maintained and used has impact on sustainability outcomes. The transformation of national sanitation infrastructures, although usually implemented with the aim to improve human well-being, may carry adverse implications for human health, social relations and environmental sustainability. Yet, there is a lack of systematic and integrated evidence on the sustainability outcomes of transitions in sanitation systems. Such outcomes can depend on factors as diverse as context-specific resource availability, everyday practices and local value, belief and norm systems.
The overall aim of this project is to contribute to improved human well-being as the overarching goal of the Sustainable Development agenda. It aims to enhance our understanding of complex human-environment interactions and their sustainability outcomes. It will highlight the need for sustainable sanitation systems in dense urban environments (SDG12, SDG10); support efforts to develop sanitation infrastructures that are culturally appropriate, more inclusive, economically viable and less wasteful (SDG6, SDG11); contribute to reducing inequalities in promoting sustainable sanitation for low-income areas (SDG10, SDG12); and help progress the improvement of living standards for the poor (SDG11) and the reduction of common health risks associated with the lack of appropriate sanitation (SDG3).
The project will define and advance a systems approach for sanitation which situates basic human functions within wider human ecosystems of critical social, economic and environmental resources and social institutions, cycles and order. It will study possible sustainability outcomes across different sanitation systems (such as service-networked or sewage-based sanitation), environments (e.g., urban, peri-urban, rural) and temporal scales (to account for time lags, increased scale and pace and the indirect effects of sanitation) using various analytical approaches and state-of-the-art modelling.
The project has four interlinked objectives:
Obj1. To understand the components of (and their interaction within) different types of sanitation systems as well as how sanitation systems interact with other social, technical and environmental systems (system of systems)
Obj2. To reveal the interactions between different sanitation systems and the Sustainable Development Agenda, SDGs and their targets
Obj3. To co-develop with stakeholders models and tools to support informed decision making in sanitation towards sustainable development
Obj4. To build transdisciplinary capacity in sanitation research, design, planning, implementation, management and maintenance
The project will focus on Shanghai (China) as a prime example of urban transformation. The mega-city offers opportunities to study the entanglement of co-evolving urban, peri-urban and rural environments at varying stages of infrastructural development. We will collect quantitative and qualitative data to understand infrastructural transitions over time and explore how possible context-specific policy- or design-focused interventions may contribute to sustainable development goals. Scenario building will allow us to consider plausible futures whilst taking into account possible uncertainties.
The project will offer the comprehensive and transdisciplinary understanding of sustainability outcomes related to transitions in sanitation systems that is often missing from existing studies. The collaboration of investigators and members of the Advisory Board in academic (UoM, MMU, UoA, Tongji, UoT, UOx), applied (EAWAG, Sustainable Sanitation, Desire Lines) and policy-driven (UNU-IIGH) research with complementary strengths will add significant value to the project. It will facilitate the effective communication of findings to a wide range of end-users.

Planned Impact

This research has the potential to benefit multiple stakeholders, including policy-makers, government and others within the public, private and third sectors who are involved in the design, planning, implementation, management, maintenance and use of sanitation in rapidly urbanising China.
The knowledge and tools produced by this research will support the UN Sustainable Development Agenda and contribute to the achievement of SDG Goal 3 (healthy lives and well-being for all); Goal 6 (water and sanitation for all); Goal 10 (reduced inequalities); Goal 11 (inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable settlements); and Goal 12 (sustainable consumption and production), among others.
We will deliver an interactive decision making support tool that builds on scenario development and simulation to allow decision makers to view and understand complex human-environment interactions and consider the plausible future impacts of their actions (interventions), whilst taking into account possible uncertainties.
Cutting-edge modelling and decision making support tools will lead to cross-sectoral collaboration and improved planning, implementation and maintenance of sustainable sanitation across multiple scales of governance. This will be achieved through the mapping and visualisation of interlinkages between social, ecological and technical systems and the actors responsible for their management.
Donor organisations (e.g., ADB, AIIB) will be able to test alternative sanitation interventions and infrastructure investments for their impact on possible future trajectories and implied sustainability outcomes. This may influence and improve local and higher-level sanitation-related projects and policies.
International think tanks (e.g., ODI, UNU) and organisations who work on urbanisation and sanitation both within the United Nations system (e.g. UN-HABITAT, FAO, WHO, UNEP) as well as outside of it (e.g. ICLEI, LEDS-GP) will benefit from the potential of an integrated systems approach and digital technologies to address global sustainability challenges around, among others, resources, health and well-being.
The research will help in-country and international NGOs, such as the Yuting Foundation and World Toilet Organization, to strengthen their advocacy work and raise awareness at different levels of governance. It will inform the design of strategic programmes that target those most in need.
Local governments (neighbourhood, street, district and municipal level officials) will participate in the design and production of the research and will benefit from the interactive digital decision making support tool that responds to their immediate knowledge needs. The work will benefit service providers, such as the Water Division and Shanghai Urban Construction Investment Development Corporation, who provide water-based sanitation in Shanghai.
Ultimately, the project will benefit the citizens of Shanghai in improving provision and access to sustainable sanitation and enhancing the quality of the built and natural environment in the long term. The future replication of the research elsewhere in China and the world will enable more communities to benefit.
PhD and Early Career Researchers across the social and natural sciences will benefit from capacity building activities at the project opening and closing events and project workshops in China and the UK. This includes exposure to and involvement in the development of cutting-edge interdisciplinary methods for the analysis of multilayer networks.
Researchers across all levels of seniority and students associated with Complexity Planning and Urbanism (CPU) at the Manchester School of Architecture; the International Joint Lab for Sustainable Development and Urban Environment at Tongji University; and Gasparatos Lab at the University of Tokyo will benefit from research activities and enhanced opportunities for international collaboration.


10 25 50
Description International transdisciplinary workshop 'Infrastructure for fragmented Cities'
Amount £50,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Manchester 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2020 
End 12/2020
Description Towards Healthy China 2035: Sustainable Urban Sanitation Infrasystems in the Yangtze River Delta
Amount £24,000 (GBP)
Organisation British Council 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2020 
End 12/2020
Description Healthy Cities Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Some 100-120 people attended the Healthy Cities conference, organised at the University of Manchester. Of these, 20-25 were representatives from government, charities, business and the third sector, whilst the majority of the others were early career researchers. Some members of the general public attended the public events. The transdisciplinary discussions during the 3-day event sparked ideas among researchers and non-academic delegates. We are currently working with some of them to translate their knowledge needs into appropriate research questions and a funding proposal for a collaborative project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://www.healthycities2019.com