IWA Publishing

A short history of how we think and talk about sanitation services and why it matters


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How we think and talk about sanitation services has changed. The very notion of a sanitation service has been transformed from one focused on technology to one focused on the sustainability of the wider sanitation system. This paper explores the transformation from technology to system by drawing from a review of more than 200 pieces of literature published between 1970 and 2015. Seven prevalent perspectives on sanitation service provision are introduced: sanitation services as a basic human need; increasing service coverage through appropriate technology; the emergence of community-participation and community-management; an interest in private-sector participation; the sanitation crisis being viewed as a crisis of governance; sanitation considered inherently political and the current focus on sustainable sanitation systems. These seven perspectives form a useful conceptual frame, which may guide the thinking of sanitation practitioners, policy-makers and academics as they begin to consider how to meet the water and sanitation Sustainable Development Goal by 2030. In this paper, four examples of how the conceptual frame might be used to support thinking are provided.

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