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Supporting the least able in sanitation improvement (part 1)

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1. Field visits: 22-23 May 2017
Typhoon-affected areas of Tacloban City and Leyte Province

Having worked with UNICEF on the post-Typhoon Haiyan sanitation and hygiene recovery strategy in 2014-15, the UNICEF-IDS workshop provided me with a valuable opportunity to revisit the typhoon-affected areas and see to what extent people had been able to restart and rebuild their lives in the two years since my last visit. And, importantly, to learn how the “phased approach to sanitation development”, known locally as the Philippine Approach for Total Sanitation (PhATS), had fared since the introduction of an adapted version by UNICEF in early 2014 (designed to work with the massive influx of humanitarian funding that flowed into the area after the typhoon, as well as the urgent need to provide assistance to those affected by the typhoon).


Leyte province and Tacloban City both looked different: there were no longer hordes of foreign humanitarian workers visible on the streets, or in the bars and restaurants, of Tacloban City, as most of the international NGOs had finished up their humanitarian projects and either headed home or moved onto new projects. The hills and landscapes around Tacloban – which were previously brown and barren, because all of the coconut palms had been scythed down at head height by the ferocious wind, and the other greenery had died or disappeared – were now verdant and welcoming.  Previously destroyed buildings, such as the hotel that housed the Samaritan’s Purse office, had been renovated and restored to their former glory, leaving few traces of the devastation visible everywhere three years earlier.

We visited communities receiving support from new projects, such as subsidized toilet loans from the World Bank supported Sanitation for the Poor (S4P) project; and others who had received assistance from Save the Children and UNICEF more than two years ago. We also met with an association of sanitation entrepreneurs, supported by Samaritan’s Purse, who construct and sell toilets and other sanitation services; and with representatives from the regional and provincial health offices, and from mayors, sanitary inspectors and health officials from a few selected municipalities (A municipality in the Philippines is the equivalent of a district in other countries. The municipal government has responsibility for public services across both urban and rural areas, and is headed by an elected mayor with a three-year term.)

My over-riding impression of the field visits was the strong government ownership of the sanitation and hygiene improvements that had taken place. Despite significant contributions from development partners, the regional, provincial and municipal representatives clearly presented the impressive sanitation progress made in the last three years, and their ambitious plans for the next few years. Strong emotions were visible as a sanitary inspector described how her municipality had worked hard and won awards for good sanitation practices before the typhoon, and then everything was destroyed, and they had to start again.  But they have since succeeded in being verified as one of the few Zero Open Defecation (ZOD = Open Defecation Free) Municipalities in the country, and are now working towards achieving the next grade in PhATS, G2 Sustainable Sanitation status.

Achieving (G1) ZOD status seemed impossible to many stakeholders immediately after the typhoon in early 2014, but now 937 ZOD barangays have been verified and real progress is being made towards G2 status, with 288 G2 barangays already verified. Nine of the 41 municipalities in Leyte province are now 100% ZOD!

Furthermore, the Mayor of Tabon-Tabon elaborated his innovative plans for his municipality to become the first G3 Total Sanitation Municipality in the Philippines (using decentralised wastewater treatment through drums containing activated carbon, shared by groups of four households; recycling and decomposition of sanitary pads and diapers; reuse of plastic solid waste to make chairs; soap production, and a number of other practical and low-cost innovations).

But we were also reminded that a lot of hardware subsidies were used to achieve these impressive results, particularly in the early stages when humanitarian agencies were providing free toilets to affected households. Over time, the humanitarian response transitioned into early recovery and development, with a focus on ZOD barangay outcomes to make sure that no one was left behind, and that the external finance was used equitably across the different populations and communities affected by the typhoon.

UNICEF presented a summary of the many different sanitation subsidy and support models used by the different agencies working in this area. The PhATS approach sets collective sanitation and hygiene outcomes, and encourages a range of different approaches to be used to reach these outcomes, with the intention of recognising contextual variations and the aim of learning what works best and what works where. But there has not yet been any comparative evaluation of these many different types of support, which – when combined with the unusual circumstances and significant finance available to the post-typhoon response – means that it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions or lessons from the rich and varied experiences in the post-typhoon areas.

Despite all of the subsidies, the toilets that we saw were generally clean, in use, and well maintained. These positive outcomes probably reflect the generally high toilet coverage (and relatively low rates of open defecation) before the typhoon, which meant that sanitation demand and practice were previously high, and that something other than demand creation was required (at least in some areas and among some populations).

However, some sustainability issues were starting to crop up – some agencies built toilets with small, single-chamber septic tanks (in order to meet the requirements of some health officials and sanitary inspectors, who were reluctant to accept simple pit latrines, despite evidence that Department of Health guidelines allow pit latrines where groundwater is not vulnerable to contamination). Some of the small septic tanks were starting to fill up, and it seems likely that more widespread problems will develop as these tanks need emptying and safe disposal services become needed.

We also saw some plastic SaTo “flapper pans” in use. UNICEF received a donation of several thousand SaTo pans from Lixil in 2014,

and these had been shared among some of the municipalities in the affected areas. We had been told that people did not really like the SaTo pans, but in our visits we found a number of SaTo pans still clean and in use without any reported problems. It turns out that those who did not like the SaTo pans soon replaced them (with ceramic pedestal pans, which are preferred by most Filipinos, and which cost only USD 8-12 in this area), while those that did not want to spend any more on their toilets, and those who preferred to use less water for toilet flushing, retained and used the SaTo pans.

Read part 2 of Andy's blog here

Andy Robinson is an independent WASH Consultant.

Date: 13 June 2017