Toilet Tales From the Field

January 14, 2016

One of the best parts of an international development worker’s job, particularly if you work in the home office/headquarters, are the field visits.  Most of my days working for Plan International USA are spent answering emails, reviewing work plans, budgets, and reports.  So I really value the times when I get to visit the projects I support, meeting colleagues I’ve only known over Skype and email, and seeing firsthand the communities and people that benefit from these projects.  Visits also help to bring to life the successes, and challenges that make or break projects.

One such project is the Cambodia Rural Sanitation and Hygiene Improvement Program (CRSHIP), an eight-year program funded by the Global Sanitation Fund (GSF) of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), for which Plan International Cambodia serves as the Executing Agency in Cambodia.  The program, currently in its fifth year of implementation, aims to increase access to sanitation and promote good sanitation and hygiene practices to rural communities in Cambodia through non-hardware subsidized approaches including community-led total sanitation (CLTS) and sanitation marketing (SanMark) among others.  On a recent trip to Cambodia to visit the CRSHIP project, I was lucky enough to participate in a two-day field visit with donor representatives to meet with several of our Implementing Partners (IPs).  The visit included meetings at villages, with local government, and with a sanitation entrepreneur, in order to present a comprehensive picture of the program.

As the visit progressed, our group noted a key challenge to sustainability – what happens when the pit latrines fill up?  As with all things, the devil is in the details.

Access to improved sanitation in rural Cambodia, representing almost 80% of the country’s population, stands around 30% (up from 20% around the start of the project) with 60% practicing open defecation (OD).  Cambodia lags behind other countries in the region and its rural sanitation coverage is more on par with Sub-Saharan African countries (which average 23% improved, 11% shared, 34% other unimproved, and 32% OD) making increasing access to sanitation a top priority.  CRSHIP was designed to prioritize the main need of triggering demand for sanitation, improving the supply of sanitation products/markets, and sustaining behavior change, all of which contribute to addressing the challenge of access/utilization of sanitation.  The program works in about 3,500 rural villages across 10 provinces with less than 50% sanitation coverage.  Program success pivots around measuring how many communities reach open defecation free (ODF) status.  In Cambodia ODF status is defined as 85% of households in a village have improved sanitation facilities and the remaining 15% of households have access to improved sanitation through sharing facilities. ODF achievement indicates that people are building and using latrines, thus addressing the key challenge of poor sanitation coverage.  The program has increased the number of latrines built, particularly the number of improved pour-flush latrines, and increased the population that benefits from using them.  An emerging priority is now to address the longer term management of pits, as part of a system wide approach to sanitation. This final aspect of sanitation, fecal sludge management (FSM), ensuring that fecal waste is safely removed, treated, and disposed, is key to maintaining the benefits of ODF environments.  

For CRSHIP, the benefit of households’ high aspirational standards for sanitation, resulting in very durable, high-quality, pour-flush latrines as the product of choice in communities has an unintended consequence for FSM.  These pour-flush latrines are estimated to fill up in five years, making this a long-term problem that’s easy to ignore.  In discussions during the visit with households in several villages, no plans for dealing with full pits were noted.  Time and again, when asked what will happen when the pit fills up, we heard that it won’t happen for at least several years.  It is easy to imagine how this might be the case.  We all want to put things off until tomorrow, especially when there are many more urgent things happening today.  But if pits fill up and are not emptied, households may revert to practicing open defecation.  Or if pits are emptied, but raw waste is dumped back in the environment without being properly treated and disposed it is the same as open defecation.  So if the program goal of increasing access and utilization of sanitation is to be sustained, the issue of FSM needs to become not only a priority, but a solution.

CRSHIP is not alone in facing this challenge, but the program is particularly well positioned to try and address it.  The preference and uptake of improved pour-flush latrines provides the program with a several year window of opportunity to develop solutions to the issue of fecal sludge management thanks to the design life of these durable latrines.  The program is also taking deliberate steps to increase and improve learning and reinvest back into the program.  Through the remainder of my trip I joined the management team in training and a workshop held for all IPs on the program’s new “pause and reflect” learning approach.  This approach emphasizes consistently taking stock of progress and challenges through regular meetings with IPs specifically focusing on issues, such as FSM, in order to critically assess risks, make necessary adaptations and trial innovative solutions.  The program will learn from the experiences of its IPs and other partners in the sector in Cambodia, like iDE, which CRSHIP has worked with recently, that are offering ways forward – simple techniques like treating fecal waste with lime helps to develop a valued product from fecal waste.  The program can also leverage the support of local government to explore current regulations and future strategies to ensure that once communities become ODF they are equipped to sustain this change.  Through collaboration, CRSHIP will work to address challenges, such as FSM, to increasing sustainable sanitation in rural Cambodia.