Sam Drabble, Sara Márquez Martín, and Jane Weru explore how water and sanitation can and should be better integrated with wider slum upgrading initiatives.
Slum upgrading involves improvements to a wide range of basic services, from healthcare and education to electricity supply, roads and transport. Water and sanitation are two of the services required for slumdwellers to achieve a decent quality of life and dignified livelihoods. But too often these services are approached in isolation — by development actors operating in silos, rather than as part of multi-sectoral partnerships.
Why is Slum Upgrading Critical to Achieving the SDGs?
Today, one in three urban residents in the developing world lives in slums. These settlements have some unique characteristics. They are often built without any urban planning; often overcrowded; often rapidly expanding. But what defines a slum, as much as any of these features, is the lack of access to basic services for the people who live there. Slums evolve as the sum of individual responses to urbanisation, in which the common good — including public space, shared infrastructure and public services — is left behind.
At the individual level, the lack of these services has devastating impacts. Our organisations see this every day in our engagement with low-income households living in slums. We see the impacts that follow from contaminated water supply, leading to illnesses like cholera; from lack of access to a decent toilet; from non-existent drainage. This was the situation described by Luis Paulino, a resident of Beira, Mozambique (pictured): “This year, my family and I had malaria. I noticed that there was a lot of stagnant water behind the house. My daughter got sick of malaria, my wife and I too. Following that my neighbour also got malaria. This is a very threatening situation for all of us.”
But we also see that the challenge is much wider than water and sanitation. Like any urban resident, slumdwellers need access to a wide range of basic services. This means sanitation, water supply and storm drainage, but also street lighting, roads, access to schools and hospitals. Human settlements are humane when they host all human rights. Having access to these basic services is the essence of our shared right to the city.
To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), urgent action is required to raise the living standards of the one billion people who live in slums. This action needs to reach across basic services and transform the habitability of these settlements. To give just four examples, slum upgrading initiatives are foundational to achieving sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11), promoting climate resilience (SDG 13), reducing inequalities (SDG 10) and tackling gender equality (SDG 5).
To achieve the SDGs, we must be greater than the sum of our parts. Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) specialises in water and sanitation; Arquitectura Sin Fronteras España (ASF-E) specialises in architecture and urban planning; Slum Dwellers International (SDI) specialises in supporting communities to drive grassroots change. These are all key parts of the mix, but to fulfil our roles effectively, we must work together. This is because there are clear linkages between water and sanitation and other basic services — including but not limited to solid waste management, flood control, road access, and land rights. In our view, integrating water and sanitation with wider slum upgrading can create powerful impacts, helping to address bottlenecks to providing water and sanitation at scale, and contributing to the step-change required to achieve SDG 6.
Emerging Experience Connecting Water and Sanitation with Slum Upgrading
There is an increasing body of experience demonstrating that effective tie-in of water and sanitation with wider slum upgrading is attainable, providing the basis for a rich discussion at the recent RISE Africa Conference. A leading example is the informal settlement of Mukuru, Nairobi, where one of the largest slum upgrading projects ever undertaken is underway. Following the designation of Mukuru as a Special Planning Area (SPA) in 2017, a participatory planning process has supported the creation of an Integrated Development Plan. The participatory planning process is a project of Nairobi City County, working closely with the residents of Mukuru, and involving consultation with over 100,000 households. The process was further supported by 42 institutions drawn mostly from civil society, including both Kenyan and international universities and different government departments.
The framework of the Mukuru initiative encompasses a wide range of basic services including housing, energy and healthcare. Within this framework, WSUP has been working with Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company to pilot low-cost sewerage — a solution tailored to the specific technical and financial challenges of providing safe sanitation in informal settlements. The impacts of this pioneering initiative will be wider than Mukuru, providing a roadmap for how to address other informal settlements in the city.
Pioneering work is also taking place in Chamanculo C, a densely populated low-income community in Mozambique’s capital city, Maputo. The Habitat Project demonstrated the mutually beneficial impacts of connecting sanitation with negotiations over land rights. Under the project, which also included road improvements, ASF-E supported a process of enabling residents to gain occupation rights; while WSUP supported the Municipality to improve sanitation facilities. The sanitation improvement work was aided by the negotiations over access and plot boundaries, and the land rights negotiations were aided by the promise of new sanitation facilities.
So what broader lessons can we take from the work in Mukuru and Chamanculo C, and from wider experience connecting water and sanitation with slum upgrading? In a recent report co-produced by WSUP and ASF-E, we outline four key takeaways:
Integrated slum upgrading is the future. Water and sanitation actors should look for ways of supporting integrated slum improvement initiatives, partnering with civil society organisations like SDI to campaign for integrated slum upgrading. Where slum upgrading initiatives already exist, as in the Mukuru case, water and sanitation actors should strive to be constructively involved.
The process of improving plot boundaries and road access is an area where integration with water and sanitation services would be of particular benefit. Tenure regularisation (plot definition, street access, tenure formalisation) is critical to the wellbeing, livelihoods, and dignity of people living in informal urban settlements. In more practical terms, land rights make it much easier to develop better water and sanitation services. As demonstrated by the Habitat Project, water and sanitation actors should strongly consider ways in which they can work in close partnership with actors like ASF-E to achieve tenure regularisation.
Get out of that silo. At the global knowledge level, urban water and sanitation actors should be trying to escape from their silo, and be partnering with thought-leaders in integrated slum improvement, like SDI and Cities Alliance. The two areas of expertise can be mutually beneficial: water and sanitation actors need to gain a better understanding of how they can fit into wider slum upgrading processes, while wider urban development actors can benefit from a more specialist understanding of water and sanitation (one of the core elements of most slum upgrading processes).
Integrate the funding. In the case of the Habitat Project, WSUP secured funding from a donor who understood the benefits of integrated slum improvement. But most funding remains highly siloed within the WASH sector, and tied to a short-project mode of delivery. Ideally, we would see funding streams for integrated slum improvement, encouraging water and sanitation actors to partner with actors bringing other expertise. This means arguing for funding streams which encourage urban water and sanitation actors to enter into partnership with actors like Arquitectura Sin Fronteras, so that urban water and sanitation improvements can take place alongside the other types of improvement that slumdwellers so desperately need.
Ultimately these recommendations converge towards a central point: the importance of multi-sectoral partnerships. A siloed approach might make sense in terms of deployment of funds, but in the end, it is people who live in the slums, and they live with everything. The benefits of a coordinated and localised approach to slum upgrading reaches across the SDGs, responding to, and reflecting, the reality of life in informal settlements.