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.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.