We sat down with Dennis Mwanza, RTI’s Senior WASH Advisor, to discuss his 25-year career in the water and urban sanitation sector, the largest remaining obstacles to improving urban sanitation in Africa, and his work on the USAID-funded Effective Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Services (E-WASH) program. If you would like to hear more from Dennis on urban sanitation management, you can register for this December 3rd virtual event with the Society for International Development.
Tell me about your career in urban sanitation management. Why is this sector so important?
I have more than 25 years of experience in the water and sanitation sector. My journey started in a small town in rural Zambia where I worked for the government to provide a free supply of water to residents. I later had the opportunity to manage a water and sanitation reform program in Zambia which led to the commercialization of urban water services—the reverse of providing free water and the introduction of one of the first autonomous regulators in Africa after Ghana. I also worked for the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program, managed as Chief of Party of a regional USAID funded program, the SUWASA, and was later appointed as the deputy director of urban sanitation markets at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation before joining RTI International.
Urban sanitation is a critical issue. The default solution for urban sanitation has been to design sewer networks with treatment plants. Yet as of 2017, only 8 percent of the urban population in Africa had access to a piped sewer network, with most cities having zero sewer systems. Even in those countries with some sewer systems, most of them are not in a good functioning condition. On the other end of the spectrum are poorly constructed toilets or unusable pit latrines. Because of the economic, health, and social impacts of poor sanitation, governments are starting to wake up and address the issue of urban sanitation.
What was the state of sanitation like when you were growing up in rural Zambia?
The women of the house, my mother and my sisters, were expected to get water for us, which would also serve for sanitation purposes. Because it was a requirement at the village level that a toilet be dug for every household, a lot of villagers made sure that a toilet was constructed. When a toilet was full, usually after about 10 to 15 years of usage, you just buried it and dug another one a few meters away. Space was not a challenge. In town, however, there was no luxury of space. So, when a toilet was full you had to engage the night workers to manually empty the toilet with its own health risks.
What are the largest obstacles national and local governments in Africa still face regarding improving urban sanitation?
One of the largest objectives to achieving improved sanitation is that of considering this to be an engineering problem, and most engineers have been trained on centralized sewer systems as the solution for urban sanitation. This is the case not only in my country, Zambia, but generally in most developing countries in Africa. However, the challenges on the ground are very different. There needs to be a shift in the minds of all stakeholders—political leadership, professionals as well as the citizenry—to accept the reality that non-sewer sanitation is one of the major solutions for urban sanitation in African cities. Non-sewer sanitation, such as water-based septic tanks, provide basically the same standard as a toilet connected to a sewer network. New or rehabilitated sewer networks and treatment plants are prohibitively expensive. For the city of Lusaka, the cost of sewer rehabilitation and expansion to cover even just 30 percent of the population of four million people is in excess of $2 billion.
Another challenge to urban sanitation in developing countries has been the widespread lack of a clear accountable government body (Ministry) to coordinate, focus, planning and a budget line on urban sanitation. This has resulted in urban sanitation not being prioritized. In countries where the water companies have sewerage in their name,s i.e. water and sewerage company, the assumption is usually made that urban sanitation is adequately covered by the utility, which in reality it is not. Many Governments in Africa and South Asia i.e. Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, etc. have only been starting to address the challenges of urban sanitation over the last five years, after the United Nations General Assembly set the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015.
When I spoke at the University of North Carolina Water and Health 2020 Conference, it was clear that without an institutional home led by the highest political level, sanitation (whether urban or rural) will not receive as much attention. According to Dr Canisius Kanangire, Executive Secretary of African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW), governments need to ensure that one, principal, accountable institution takes clear leadership of the national sanitation portfolio and establish one coordinating body with specific responsibility for sanitation and hygiene. Another panelist, Dr. Abdullah Al-Muyeed, the Chief Operating Officer of the Citywide Inclusive Sanitation-Fecal Sludge Management (CWIS-FSM) Government of Bangladesh, clearly stated that having an accountable ministry should be supported by a clear implementation path with an operator defined to be responsible for coordination and delivery of urban sanitation based on the CWIS planning approach.