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People use the Wawa River in the Philippines for many purposes. Phoebelyn Gulunan, 2016, Author provided

Sanitation projects will go down the toilet unless we ask people what they really want

Countries have a lot of work to do to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. But development projects don’t always go the way you expect.

A resettlement project in Laos provided taps and toilets as a way to improve hygiene and health outcomes for communities.

Three years after resettlement a project team formed to address health issues found that the new brick toilet facilities were being used to store rice. The practice of “open defecation” was continuing in nearby farmland.

The community members explained that keeping rice dry and safe from animals was their highest priority. They also thought it was more hygienic for faeces to be washed away, rather than concentrated in one place such as a toilet.

How did this mismatch occur? There had been limited community participation, no awareness-raising and no sense of community ownership generated during the project planning. Getting these things right will be fundamental to achieving any of the development goals.

Toilets aren’t enough

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognise the importance of community participation in local development projects.

Involving communities — the people who will use or benefit from the new technology — can enhance both short-term and long-term impacts of a project.

As a signatory to the SDGs, Australia has committed to achieving these goals internationally and at home. This week, Australia and the Asia-Pacific are holding an SDG Week to continue work on the goals.

Our work focuses particularly on Goal 6: improving access to water, sanitation and hygiene. Community participation is an explicit target set out in this goal.

Despite major progress since the earlier UN Millennium Development Goals (which finished in 2015), contaminated drinking water leads to 340,000 child deaths each year from diarrhoea. Worldwide, more than 900 million people still lack access to toilet facilities.

Funding water and toilets alone will not improve these statistics. We need to provide water and toilets in ways that meet the needs of the people who will use them. That calls for far more careful participation strategies.

Bottom up

In a discussion paper released today by The University of Queensland, we reveal that many organisations managing water, sanitation and hygiene projects only engage communities late in the process when options are constrained.

This “top-down” approach can result in a lack of community ownership, a mismatch between project outcomes and community needs, and a failure to improve water and sanitation outcomes.

Instead, we recommend a “bottom-up”, community-driven approach. This engages communities earlier in the project timeline, as you can see in the figure below.

Stages of water development project planning. GCI/UQ

With this approach, communities can participate in more significant decisions, such as setting policy targets and prioritising technologies, as well as local implementation and maintenance. That, in turn, can contribute to more effectively achieving the UN’s sustainable development agenda towards 2030.

Getting it right

There are excellent examples of getting community participation right in these ways.

For instance, a project in the Solomon Islands understood the importance of gender diversity in development. The training schedule and venue were adjusted to increase participation by local women.

Communities in Vanuatu with DIY wells and latrines in close proximity. Helen Ross, 2008

In Vanuatu, informal settlement residents had built their own water wells and pit toilets close together on floodplains. This caused sewage to contaminate the drinking water.

A community participation process increased local community members’ awareness of the water cycle and water resources management, and empowered them to develop policies requesting adequate water and sanitation infrastructure from their government.

Vanuatu community members participate to build understanding and plan water resources. Terry Chan, 2008

Back in Laos, the resettlement organisation reconsidered their approach to toilet-building. They started working with and through school and women’s groups to build awareness of the links between daily behaviour and health. That same village has now been declared “open defecation free”.

During SDG Week, it is crucial to keep in mind that the SDGs are not just for people, they are by people too. Participation can bridge the gap between the hardware of sanitation infrastructure and the software of a good participation and decision-making process.

This article was updated on November 28 to provide further detail on the resettlement project in Laos.

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