Sustainable sanitation approaches focus on the "sanitation value chain" which includes collection, emptying, transport, treatment and reuse/disposal.[1]

Sustainable sanitation is a sanitation system designed to meet certain criteria and to work well over the long-term. Sustainable sanitation systems consider the entire "sanitation value chain", from the experience of the user, excreta and wastewater collection methods, transportation or conveyance of waste, treatment, and reuse or disposal.[2] The Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA) includes five features (or criteria) in its definition of "sustainable sanitation": Systems need to be economically and socially acceptable, technically and institutionally appropriate and protect the environment and natural resources.[3]

The purpose of sustainable sanitation is the same as sanitation in general: to protect human health. However, "sustainable sanitation" attends to all processes of the system: This includes methods of collecting, transporting, treating and the disposal (or reuse) of waste.[2]

Increasingly, sustainable sanitation also involves the consideration of climate change related impacts on sanitation infrastructure and behaviour and the resilience of technologies and communities.[4]


Example for the systems approach of sustainable sanitation: Single Pit System (Compendium of Sanitation Systems and Technologies)

Comparison with "improved sanitation"

Further information: Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation

The Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation (JMP) of the WHO (World Health Organization) and UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) was responsible for monitoring progress towards the Millennium Development Goal for drinking water and sanitation. For reasons of simplicity—being able to monitor the sanitation situation with household surveys—the JMP had to find a simple differentiation between "improved" sanitation (toilets that count towards the MDG goals) and "unimproved" sanitation (toilets that do not count towards the MDG goals).

According to the JMP definition, improved sanitation facilities include facilities which are:[5]

Unimproved sanitation facilities according to the JMP include:[5]

In some circumstances "improved" sanitation facilities can be regarded as not sustainable, whereas in other circumstances "unimproved" sanitation facilities can be regarded as sustainable. This is because it depends on the sanitation system, of which the toilet is only one part. For example, a pit latrine with a slab can become unsustainable sanitation if it is polluting the groundwater or if the waste sludge that is removed from the pit latrine is dumped into the environment. A bucket toilet can become sustainable if the collection, treatment and reuse or disposal of waste is taken care of in a safe manner, for example with the urine-diverting dry toilets that SOIL is employing in Haiti.[6]

Comparison with ecosan

Sustainable sanitation, defined with the five sustainability measures, may or may not have an focus on reuse of excreta, because the criterion of "protecting the natural resources" is only one of several that need to be aimed towards. In comparison, ecological sanitation (ecosan) has a strong focus on the reuse of waste.

The term is widely used since about 2009.

Sustainability criteria

The main objective of a sanitation system is to protect and promote human health by providing a clean environment and breaking the cycle of disease. In order to be sustainable a sanitation system has to be not only economically viable, socially acceptable, and technically and institutionally appropriate, but it should also protect the environment and the natural resources. According to the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance, when improving an existing and/or designing a new sanitation system, sustainability criteria related to the following aspects should be considered:[3]


Poorly handled fecal sludge poses high health risks (much spillage and no personal protective equipment for the workers).

Health aspects include the risk of exposure to pathogens and hazardous substances that could affect public health at all points of the sanitation system from the toilet via the collection and treatment system to the point of reuse or disposal. The topic also covers aspects such as hygiene, nutrition and the improvement of livelihood achieved by the application of a certain sanitation system, as well as downstream effects.

Environment and natural resources

Environment and natural resources aspects involve the required energy, water and other natural resources for construction, operation and maintenance of the system, as well as the potential emissions to the environment resulting from use. It also includes the degree of recycling and reuse of excreta practiced and the effects of these, for example reusing the wastewater, returning nutrients and organic material to agriculture, and the protecting of other non-renewable resources, for example through the production of renewable energy (e.g. biogas or fuel wood).

Technology and operation

Technology and operation aspects incorporate the functionality and the ease with which the system can be constructed, operated and monitored using the available human resources (e.g. the local community, technical team of the local utility etc.). It also concerns the suitability to achieve an efficient substance flow management from a technical point of view. Furthermore, it evaluates the robustness of the system, its vulnerability towards disasters, and the flexibility and adaptability of its technical elements to the existing infrastructure, to demographic and socio-economic developments and climate change.

Finance and economics

Financial and economic issues relate to the capacity of households and communities to pay for sanitation, including the construction, maintenance and depreciation of the system. Besides the evaluation of investment, operation and maintenance costs, the topic also takes into account the economic benefits that can be obtained in "productive" sanitation systems, including benefits from the production of the recyclables (soil conditioner, fertiliser, energy and reclaimed water), employment creation, increased productivity through improved health and the reduction of environmental and public health costs.

Socio-cultural and institutional aspects

Socio-cultural and institutional aspects take into account the socio-cultural acceptance and appropriateness of the system, convenience, system perceptions, gender issues and impacts on human dignity, the contribution to subsistence economies and food security, and legal and institutional aspects.

Planning for sustainable sanitation

Most sanitation systems have been designed with the five aspects in mind, but in practice they are failing far too often because some of the criteria are not met. Since there is no one-for-all sanitation solution which fulfils the sustainability criteria, evaluation will depend on the local framework and will have to take into consideration the existing environmental, technical, socio-cultural and economic conditions.

Some basic principles to be observed when planning and implementing a sustainable sanitation system were endorsed by the members of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (the "Bellagio Principles for Sustainable Sanitation") during its 5th Global Forum in November 2000:

  1. Human dignity, quality of life and environmental security at household level should be at the centre of any sanitation approach.
  2. In line with good governance principles, decision-making should involve participation of all stakeholders, especially the consumers and providers of services.
  3. Waste should be considered a resource, and its management should be holistic and form part of integrated water resource, nutrient flow and waste management processes.
  4. The domain in which environmental sanitation problems are resolved should be kept to the minimum practicable size (household, community, town, district, catchment, city).

These planning guidelines have been revised further and are now used in various training courses for urban planners.[7][8]

Optimization of resource recovery

Sustainable sanitation that allows for resource recovery has the potential to contribute to circular economies and green cities, sustainable food chains, renewable energy, and new business models for private sector involvement.[9]

Five recommendations were made in 2020 for the optimization of resource recovery: (i) prioritize short systems that close the loop at the lowest possible level; (ii) separate waste streams as much as possible, because this allows for higher recovery potentials; (iii) use storage and treatment technologies that contain the products as much as possible, avoid leaching technologies (e.g. single pits) and technologies with high risk of volatilization (e.g. drying beds); (iv) design sinks to optimize recovery and avoid disposal sinks; and (v) combine various reuse options for different side streams (e.g. urine diversion systems that combine reuse of urine and production of biofuel from feces).[9]


Some examples for improving present sanitation practices in the short-term, purely from a technology perspective, are listed below:

With respect to the other sustainability factors, key areas of attention include:

See also


  1. ^ BMGF (2015). Building demand for sanitation - a 2015 portfolio update and overview - Water, sanitation, and hygiene strategy, June 2015. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle, Washington, USA
  2. ^ a b Tilley, E., Ulrich, L., Lüthi, C., Reymond, Ph. and Zurbrügg, C. (2014). Compendium of Sanitation Systems and Technologies. 2nd Revised Edition. Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag), Duebendorf, Switzerland
  3. ^ a b SuSanA (2008). Towards more sustainable sanitation solutions - SuSanA Vision Document. Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA)
  4. ^ a b Kohlitz, J. and Iyer, R. (2021) 'Rural Sanitation and Climate Change: Putting Ideas into Practice' Frontiers of Sanitation: Innovations and Insights 17, Brighton IDS, DOI: 10.19088/SLH.2021.002
  5. ^ a b "WHO / UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme: wat/san categories". Retrieved 2017-03-21.
  6. ^ Russel, K. (2013). Mobile sanitation services for dense urban slums - Various documents on results from research grant. Stanford University, USA
  7. ^ IWA (2005). Sanitation 21 - Simple approaches to complex sanitation. International Water Association (IWA), London, UK
  8. ^ Lüthi, C., Panesar, A., Schütze, T., Norström, A., McConville, J., Parkinson, J., Saywell, D., Ingle, R. (2011). Sustainable sanitation in cities: a framework for action. Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA), International Forum on Urbanism (IFoU), Papiroz Publishing House, ISBN 978-90-814088-4-4
  9. ^ a b Spuhler, Dorothee; Scheidegger, Andreas; Maurer, Max (2020). "Comparative analysis of sanitation systems for resource recovery: Influence of configurations and single technology components". Water Research. 186: 116281. doi:10.1016/j.watres.2020.116281. Text was copied from this source, which is available under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
  10. ^ Duttle, Marsha (January 1990). "NM State greywater advice". New Mexico State University. Retrieved 23 January 2010.
  11. ^ Schmied, Petr (2017) Behaviour Change Toolkit for International Development Practitioners. People in Need.
  12. ^ Chambers, R. and Myers, J. (2016) 'Norms, Knowledge and Usage', Frontiers of CLTS: Innovations and Insights 7, Brighton: IDS.
  13. ^ Hickling, S. (2019) 'Tackling Slippage', Frontiers of CLTS: Innovations and Insights 14 Brighton: IDS
  14. ^ Verma, A. and Shukla, J. P. (2021) "Community Leave No One Behind: Handbook For Practitioners". Sanitation Learning Hub. Retrieved 2021-12-14.
  15. ^ "Leave no one behind Archives". Sanitation Learning Hub. Retrieved 2021-12-14.
  16. ^ Naomi Carrard, Jeremy Kohlitz, Simone Soeters, Gabrielle Halcrow, Janina Murta & Juliet Willetts (2020) Reaching all in rural sanitation: experiences from inclusive programming in five countries, Development in Practice, 30:5, 609-623, DOI: 10.1080/09614524.2020.1786008
  17. ^ WSSCC (2018) Guidance and Tips: For Learning From People Who May Be Most Disadvantaged During the Programme Process Water and Sanitation Collaborative Council.
  18. ^ Chambers, R., Myers, J. and N. Vernon (2020) 'Rapid Action Learning for Sanitation and Hygiene Programming', Frontiers of Sanitation: Innovations and Insights 15 Brighton: IDS
  19. ^ House, S. (2020) 'Learning in the Sanitation and Hygiene Sector' SLH Learning Paper 10, The Sanitation Learning Hub, Brighton: IDS