Sanitation in informal settlements: a networked problem

Can understanding how people perceive sanitation help achieve sustainable access to sanitation in cities?

Colin Mcfarlane's picture
Colin Mcfarlane is an urban geographer working on cities and informality at Durham University
26 August 2015
A toilet block in Mumbai, India, where people living in different informal settlements experience distinct forms of inadequate sanitation (Photo: Renu Desai)

A toilet block in Mumbai, India, where people living in different informal settlements experience distinct forms of inadequate sanitation (Photo: Renu Desai)

The increasingly urban nature of the global sanitation crisis presents a vital challenge to research, policy and practice, indeed to anyone concerned with more just cities. But we are only beginning to understand both the dimensions of the problems and the possible solutions.

Research has shown that the questions we need to answer are not only diverse, they are also changing, and vary from place to place (for an overview of existing knowledge and debates, see the April and October issues of Environment and Urbanization on sanitation).

But as I argue, seeing sanitation as a networked process, which reflects people's perceptions and experiences, can help us work collectively towards more just sanitation conditions.

An important dimension here are the moral economies that help shape people's sense of entitlement to sanitation, i.e. their expectations, needs and hopes, discussed in a new paper by Renu Desai and myself.

Sanitation challenges

Sanitation is funded and delivered in different ways globally. In many places, it is increasingly viewed as a private good, in others the question of who delivers sanitation is a distant second to land and security of tenure.

In some places the biggest challenge is a lack of political will, in others finance disappears through unaccountable local states, while elsewhere the key challenge is more about behavioral change.

Almost everywhere gender is – or should be – central to sanitation planning, implementation, and maintenance, whether in relation to health and safety for women and girls, education, or livelihood opportunities.

We have learned that maintenance is more important than simply providing access, but the debate about the kinds of technologies that are most appropriate, and about which approaches (e.g. state- or community-led, or public-private partnerships) ensure maintenance, is a lively one. I could go on. The challenge, in short, is as daunting as it is vital, and will require a global effort.

A networked approach

My own work has focused on how different groups, especially residents, perceive and experience sanitation, and the implications for improved conditions. Over the course of this work, conducted largely in Mumbai and recently in Cape Town and Kampala, I've returned to one key argument – that urban sanitation must be understood as a networked process in the lives of the urban poor.

Urban sanitation links different spheres that go far beyond the safe separation of humans from their wastes, and includes the vital role of land and housing security, food and nutrition, livelihood and education, religion and caste, gender and dignity, contaminated domestic environments and the pollution of water supplies within slums and beyond into downstream rural areas.

My key argument has been that if sanitation solutions are to work, they must be rooted in how this sanitation network operates in the contexts, lives and perceptions of the poor.

For example, our 'everyday sanitation' project with Renu Desai and Steve Graham in Mumbai, we demonstrated that not only did people living in different informal settlements experience distinct forms of inadequate sanitation, the consequences for people's everyday lives were strikingly different.

Solutions must necessarily be to a large extent context-specific. If in one place party political patronage shaped provisions and maintenance, in another the same party may be actively hostile to residents – partly due to social relations of religion, class and migration – and may even demolish their sanitation structures, forcing residents to find other ways to meet needs.

A geographical approach to the SDGs

This means that global initiatives like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) must be geographical goals, i.e. they can only be met if solutions are developed through understanding the context and challenges of particular groups in particular cities.

It also means that solutions must be cross-sectoral and collaborative, taking sanitation professionals into seemingly different but intimately connected issues. Global goals such as the SDGs need to be flexible enough to operate across places and sectors from water and sanitation to food and nutrition, housing, land, education and employment.

Sites of entitlement

In Environment and Urbanization, Renu and I look at the everyday life of sanitation in informal settlements and develop the idea of 'sites of entitlement' as a basis for better understanding how sanitation infrastructure and services are perceived and experienced in informal settlements.

A toilet in Rafinagar, Mumbai ((Photo: Renu Desai)By 'sites of entitlement' we don't just have in mind the legal and policy frameworks that relate to sanitation investment, delivery and maintenance – although these are of course vital – but instead an understanding of entitlement to sanitation as rooted in the social and political life of people and places.

Drawing on ethnographic research in two informal settlements in Mumbai, we look at how people's everyday experiences, interactions and practices – including relations with the state and legal system – constitute their understandings of entitlement, and argue that sites of entitlement are closely linked to 'moral economies'. This is important for thinking through the possibilities for realising the universal right to sanitation and water.

Moral economies are understandings of what should and should not be provided to people by the state or other actors, both in terms of access and maintenance. They are both collectively produced and often profoundly contested as they vary between and within states, residents, civil society groups, and so on.

Moral economies remind us that sites of entitlement do not exist in an ether. They are made socially and subject to change through different individual circumstances, collective struggles, and changing conditions within and beyond neighbourhoods.

Understanding sites of entitlement is not about trying to provide the bare minimum according to what people think they should have. It is about working towards just sanitation conditions by engaging with people's different needs and hopes.

Sites of entitlement reveal the networked nature of sanitation perceptions. Our hope is that attention to what different groups expect and understand as their entitlement to sanitation can help inform both more fine-grained understandings of the global urban sanitation crisis and generic approaches to sanitation that can work at scale.

Understanding sites of entitlement is important if we are to develop general standards that are flexible enough to meet what people need and desire.

Colin Mcfarlane ( is an urban geographer working on cities and informality at Durham University.