6 Ways to Bridge the Urban-Rural Divide in Sanitation

Women in rural India.
Women in rural India.

By Tatiana Gallego-Lizón

While only 19% of urban dwellers lack access to adequate toilets, a daunting 50% face the same problem in rural areas. 

Securing availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, the aim of Sustainable Development Goal No. 6, is within reach for Asia and the Pacific.

In merely a quarter of a century, safe water supply coverage in the region has reached a startling 92%.  However, progress in sanitation coverage and hygiene has not been as sizeable: only 65% of Asia’s 4.3 billion people had access to improved facilities in 2015.

These figures nonetheless mask many differences. In most sub-regions of Asia and the Pacific safe sanitation is practiced by 70% to 80% of the population, but in South and South-West Asia, less than 50% of people do.

Most striking are the disparities between urban and rural areas: while only 19% of urban dwellers lack access to adequate toilets, a daunting 50% face the same problem in rural areas. Wealth is an important factor, yet a change in mindset is also needed, and here are 6 ways to bridge that urban-rural divide in sanitation and the water supply needed for it.

1. Access to finance. Relaxing financial constraints can help provide access to equitable, safe and affordable water and sanitation for all by 2030. To achieve this goal, we must move from a largely aid-centric approach to one where households and businesses take a more active role in financing. Governments should also better target assistance for the poor, as well as incentivize and facilitate access to finance. International financial institutions and other partners can complement and assist these functions through their knowledge and experience in emerging areas such as technology and climate change adaptation, and by contributing to financing efforts.

2. Changing attitudes toward sanitation. Many good approaches to changing behavior have emerged over the years such as empowering communities, accepting and addressing different gender-based attitudes, and making children part of the solution but more efforts are needed  to sustain and accelerate use of improved sanitation  in rural areas. To end open defecation, context, culture and values, and other constraints must be simultaneously tackled. Shaming and penalties have failed and are not sustainable. However, affirmative action, social marketing and peer pressure have proven to be more effective and should be scaled up. India’s “no toilet, no bride” campaign, for one, has proved more motivating than many other initiatives.   

3. Promote willingness to charge. Attitudes toward payment for water supply and sanitation services need changing too. People are willing to pay for improved services, including in rural areas, because informal and alternative delivery mechanisms cost more. Interestingly, the emerging challenge is to increase the willingness to charge for water.  Politicians are often reluctant to do so out of fear of losing votes. Unfortunately, though it may be counterintuitive, delivering improved services for free is not good politics.  Why?  Because a free service gives people an illusion of entitlement – without obligation or responsibility. The outcome is an unsustainable service because the government cannot afford to deliver a free service in the long term. When the service is interrupted or discontinued, the politicians are blamed. .

4. Discourage social exclusion. Water and sanitation programs need to be designed to plainly address fairness and participation from planning to implementation, operation, maintenance, and management. Contractual targets with service providers and operators need to explicitly cover those at risk of being marginalized.

5. Adopt new technology. We should not shy away from new technologies if they are low-cost and locally appropriate. Sanitation technology, however, should more systematically incorporate circular economy principles, resource reduction and recovery, and recognize opportunities for digital and social innovation, particularly in young and rapidly changing societies. Mobile phone applications for engineering solutions such as flow monitoring or education and awareness dissemination, the Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge and pre-paid water cards are some good examples of advancements in this area.

6. Improve data collection. There continues to be a dearth of quality information when it comes to rural water supply and sanitation facilities. Available records often only capture government-led or donor-funded facilities. More comprehensive data sets are needed, including household and community-built assets, their condition, and precise location. Geocoding, crowd sourcing, and open data systems all provide new opportunities to complete the picture, plan and manage development.

Since 2000, ADB has financed the development of water supply and sanitation in rural areas in Asia and the Pacific through 37 projects worth over $888 million. This is nearly three times more than during the previous decade, but support has diminished in nearly all subregions since 2010 and projections do not paint a promising picture. In comparison, lending in urban water supply and sanitation amounted to about $10.5 billion in 2000-2015. While investment in urban water supply and sanitation is essential to creating competitive and resilient cities in Asia, disparities will only grow further if assistance to rural areas—where the basic needs of over 1 billion people remain unmet—is overlooked.