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.

 
 
 
 

So how could Northern Ireland spend £400m on new infrastructure?

Great Victoria Street station, Belfast. Image: Milepost98/Wikipedia.

Last year’s confidence and supply agreement between the Conservative party and the DUP saw 40 per cent of the Northern Irish party’s £1bn price tag allocated to infrastructure. Although there is, at the time of writing, no functioning government in the North to spend it, where could £400m be best used?

Northern Ireland is not, geographically, a large place. The six counties are inhabited by under 2m people and, to use a comparative metric that anyone who has sat in a high school geography lesson may remember, the North is less than half the size of Belgium. Belfast and Derry, Northern Ireland’s two major urban centres, are only a 70 mile drive apart. On the face of it then, an injection of cash into infrastructure should be relatively straightforward.

Yet the Belfast Rapid Transit system is the only notable public transport infrastructure currently being developed in the North. That takes the form of a web of connected bus lanes, as well as investment in a new bus fleet for use in them, that aims to cut car use in the heavily congested city.

One way to spend the money might be to tame the Irish Sea. Democratic Unionist Party MP Sammy Wilson claimed back in January a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland was “feasible” and would be a “much needed alternative” to the current ferry route. Unsurprisingly, he isn’t the first to notice that Northern Ireland’s east coast is only 20 miles from Scotland.

But while some MPs dream of bridges across the sea, interest in more useful infrastructure is less forthcoming. Take the NI Railways service, which despite the name only covers a fraction of the North. A simple glance over a map shows how fractured coverage is.

Even where the trains do run, the service is hardly efficient. The Belfast-Derry journey takes over two hours, which doesn’t compare well with the current London-Birmingham fast service, which covers almost twice the distance in 1hr22. Belfast City Airport, which last year handled 2.5m passengers, is serviced by Sydenham Station – but only via shuttle bus, which you have to request, or via the verge of the A2.

Meanwhile there is no train at all to Belfast International Airport: instead, an expensive taxi or a bus through the Northern Irish countryside is required. It may be scenic, but it isn’t good infrastructure.

That said, NI Rail saw 14.2m  passenger journeys last year, compared to 11.5m in 2012-13: the problem isn’t that there is no demand for infrastructure, simply that no one has bothered to build it.

It is a similar story with roads. Belfast and Derry are only a 70 miles apart, yet there isn’t a direct, or even indirect, motorway link between the two. In fact, there are only 60 miles of motorway in the entire North: all are in the east, almost exclusively focused on Belfast.


Northern Ireland is, of course, not the only part of the UK poorly supplied when it comes to transport. Anyone reading this who lives in the North East of England or who relies of commuters trains around Manchester, for example, will have experienced similar problem. So what makes Northern Ireland special?

Well: for a relatively small geographical area, there is a striking polarisation in the provision of transport. Not only is there an overall lack of infrastructure, but what does exist is overwhelmingly concentrated in the east. To take one instructive statistic, 51 of Northern Ireland’s railway stations are located east of the River Bann, the traditional dividing line between east and west.

This divide isn’t an accident: rather, it’s a legacy of the North’s sectarian history. The east has been traditionally unionist, the west nationalist, and there has been a strong bias in economic power and investment towards the former. As analysis from Northern Irish regeneration advisor Steve Bradley shows, the main rail and road networks are almost exclusively confined to areas where Protestant are more common than Catholics, and where the DUP holds political power.

So, if the North does come under direct rule from Westminster, there are some fairly obvious gaps in the transport network that could do with being filled – based on the needs of citizens, rather than their background or voting preference. But with the open question of the Irish border hanging over us – something which brings implications for cross-border travel along with everything else – the chances of that appear slim.