How can the world provide informal settlements and slums with sanitation and clean water?

Villagers in Niger queue for water in 2009. Image: Getty.

Polluted water and inadequate water supply, sanitation and hygiene cause around 80 per cent of diseases and one in four deaths in developing countries. The world is recognising that existing strategies simply aren’t working.

We are starting a five-year project early this year to implement an innovative water-sensitive approach to revitalise 24 informal settlements in Fiji and Indonesia. Funded by the Wellcome Trust, the project aims to turn informal settlements into independent sites that:

  • recycle their own wastewater;

  • harvest rainwater;

  • create green space for water cleansing and food cultivation; and

  • restore natural waterways to encourage diversity and deal with flooding.

Working with local slum communities, the project will design and deliver modular and multi-functional water infrastructure. This will be tailored to their settlements. Providing secure and reliable water and sanitation services and flood management should improve public health and create more resilient communities.

This project aims to reduce both environmental contamination itself and the likelihood of human contact with contaminants. In doing so, it will provide some of the first quantitative data on the link between improved environmental health and better community health.


Water management innovations in slums can deliver healthier, more sustainable and environmentally compatible solutions.

Time to rethink failed approaches

In 2010, the United Nations recognised that access to safe water and sanitation is a human right. Five years later, the UN acknowledged it had failed to provide 2.4bn people with improved sanitation, a goal set 15 years earlier.

The conventional hydraulic engineering solution to these challenges has changed little in 150 years. This approach has major financial, environmental and social costs.

The conventional approach is also an unlikely option for informal settlements this century. These are typically found in developing countries with high rates of urbanisation. These countries are struggling with inadequate resources for basic infrastructure for growing national populations, let alone the poor and vulnerable in informal settlements.

Traditional urban upgrading projects generally focus on basic infrastructure such as housing and drainage. This is delivered primarily via one-dimensional technical solutions. The problem is that these typically don’t take account of the existing local and environmental context.

The landscape, environment and community health are intimately linked. Image: author provided.

These approaches often fail to allow for the high rates of urbanisation that characterise informal settlements. This, in turn, exacerbates the inextricably linked challenges of sanitation, water supply and public and environmental health.

The benefits of a new approach

Drawing on programs in Australia, China, Singapore and Israel, the project will alter the biophysical landscape to greatly reduce communities’ exposure to faecal and other hazardous contamination in the environment, while also improving biodiversity.

We anticipate multiple benefits. These include better community health, fewer infections with disease-causing bugs resulting in less diarrhoeal disease, and better intestinal health among children leading to improved growth.

The changes in the living environment should also improve wellbeing, increase food production and decrease violence against women and girls who will, for the first time, have access to domestic sanitation facilities and reliable water supplies.

Before: an obviously unhealthy informal settlement environment. Image: author provided.

After: locally tailored approaches to water management can have a transformative impact. Author provided.

Importantly, the project begins with a two-year baseline data assessment of both environmental and human health. The infrastructure upgrades will be delivered in year three. These will be followed by another two-year assessment of environmental and health impacts.

A local focus to achieve global goals

The recently adopted UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) renewed the commitment to universal delivery of essential water and sanitation services.

This global agenda includes goals such as health and wellbeing (Goal 3), improved water and sanitation (Goal 6) and sustainable cities and communities (Goal 11).

While these goals are clearly important, achieving them demands an integrated and holistic approach. Trying to solve each goal individually is not only inefficient in terms of time and money, it can have unintended consequences as it misses the intrinsic connections and feedback loops between them. Our project aims to avoid these pitfalls.


The project includes a significant capacity-building dimension in Fiji and Indonesia. Through dedicated training programs, we will develop in-country communities of practice around the intervention (design and implementation) and the environmental and public health assessments.

Project personnel will provide training and transfer knowledge on the design, construction, operation and maintenance of the technologies.

We will collaborate with local engineers, contractors, governments and community organisations. By building local capabilities around water-sensitive infrastructure, together with our in-country partners, we hope this in-depth engagement will leave a lasting legacy.

An international consortium led by Monash University will deliver the project. It brings together leading researchers in medicine, architecture, engineering, ecology, economics and social sciences, across Monash, CRC for Water Sensitive Cities, Stanford University, Emory University and the University of Melbourne. Other partners include the Asian Development Bank (funding the infrastructure upgrades), Melbourne Water and South East Water, World Health Organisation, Oxfam International and WaterAid.

Our hope is that this project will provide an evidence-based proof of concept that will improve slum upgrading and revitalisation. Providing essential water services and cleaning up the environment should deliver radically enhanced health outcomes for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

This, we believe, is a real-world solution to achieving what everyone recognises is a global human right: access to clean water and sanitation.The Conversation

Rebekah Brown is professor and director of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, and Karin Leder a professor and head of the Infectious Diseases Epidemiology Unit, at Monash University. Tony Wong is professor and CEO of the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?


Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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