Smaller is Better When Investing in Fecal Sludge Management in Asia

Sewage treatment plant in India.
Sewage treatment plant in India.

By Amy Leung

While big infrastructure works for developed countries, countries in developing Asia would benefit from complementary small-scale sanitation solutions that help more people.

While there is no one quick solution to sanitation problems in Asia and the Pacific, some small wastewater projects are making waves. The scale of these projects implies shifting away from ADB’s traditional approach of focusing on developing bigger centralized systems that involve large, extensive wastewater networks and infrastructure. These small projects have also challenged the notion that progress and development can only be achieved through big infrastructure.

Until recently, all the wastewater management projects in our portfolio supported centralized sewer systems. But in 2014, ADB put up through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation the Sanitation Financing Partnership Trust Fund (SFPF), a $15 million grant focused on supporting non-networked, small-scale sanitation solutions for fecal sludge management (FSM) and the basic containment and transport of feces. On their own, these projects would have been too small to be packaged into an investment program, and are less popular than traditional investments.

So how can we convince project officers to spend as much time and effort on something that represents 1% or less of their total portfolio? How do we persuade everyone that such small investments can add value, and possibly change our approach in the sanitation sector? Moreover, how do we encourage large governments in developing Asia to focus on an aspect of sanitation that has been given little attention in favor of following in the footsteps of developed countries which have large, centralized sewer systems?

The task, at first, was daunting. However, a few years after the Gates Foundation posed the challenge, all of ADB’s regional departments now have FSM projects that are suitable for smaller settlements and peri-urban neighborhoods, complementing centralized systems that are more viable for larger and densely populated cities.

For instance, a year ago in Nepal water users and sanitation committees were only concerned about delivering much-needed potable water. But now there is a lot of discussion on developing sanitation options, and pilot FSM facilities are being designed for Kakarvitta and Charali, small cities that will both serve as benchmarks for other towns. The development and operation of the facilities may inform the next phase of the small towns water supply and sanitation sector program.

In India, ADB is designing through the SFPF pilot community sanitation facilities that will collect, treat and dispose of toilet waste properly. If the pilot program proves successful in Rajasthan, it can be replicated to address the problem in other parts of the country.

A sanitation component was included in ADB’s third Urban Governance and Infrastructure Improvement (Sector) Project in Bangladesh. As a result, the first FSM facility is currently being built in Joypurhat, with the goal of extending it to 32 more towns.

Equally encouraging are the projects that will influence decisions on a national level. The SFPF supports initiatives that will pave the way for policies to support more aggressive FSM actions such as regular de-sludging programs and promoting efficient management and disposal of waste in Indonesia, Mongolia, Nepal, the Philippines, and Viet Nam.

The projects are indeed small, but their results may change the way sanitation is addressed in many parts of developing Asia.

Over the last few years, on-site sanitation systems such as septic tanks and latrines have become increasingly popular across the region. Although many see FSM as just an intermediate solution, ADB understands that FSM meets the immediate needs of many people in developing Asia and improves their living conditions. Since there is a high demand for FSM, this approach is a business strategy as much as it is a development move. Small-scale sanitation solutions can encourage innovative technology that attracts private sector participation/investment.

I look forward to seeing the results of the many FSM pilot projects once completed next year. It is exciting for many of us in the sector to witness large impacts with small investments. As proven by these projects, bigger is not necessarily better. While big infrastructure works for developed countries, developing countries in Asia and the Pacific would benefit from complementary small-scale sanitation solutions that help more people.

The better option is always the one that is doable, appropriate, and has the most positive impact. It is not enough to have a wastewater revolution; we must adapt our approaches to unique circumstances.