Categorisation of shared sanitation – some city-wide data using one approach

There has been a fair amount of debate on the role of shared sanitation in urban settings recently, see e.g. this comment piece from various stakeholders, this paper (plus others) from Sheillah Simiyu and this one from Marieke Heijnen. Also, WSUP recently issued an RFP for multi-country research on shared sanitation. In my own little corner of the sector, I’m working on a costing and cost-effectiveness study of the WSUP shared sanitation intervention in Maputo.

There are many types of shared sanitation – a toilet (or toilet block) can be shared amongst 2-3 families on a compound, among 20-30 identified families in a small area, or among all-comers willing to pay the entrance fee per use. A few years ago Adrien Mazeau did some work on ways of categorising the many different ways we can cut shared sanitation, ending up with a detailed typology (p.23). The categorisations are by location, access to whom, relationship of users, ownership, management, operation and payments.

A recent conversation on this issue made me look back at the data we collected under the World Bank five-city FSM study in 2014-16 (summary report here). Some useful data tables didn’t make it into the city reports (they were already 120pp long…). Below is a graph that didn’t make the cut. It shows sample survey data which are city-wide representative, collected in 2014-15 – more on the sampling in each city report. The variable shown is the latrine “usually used”, based on a simple sharing typology more or less the same as that suggested by the 2017 editorial referenced above:

  1. Household private (on-plot)
  2. Household shared (on-plot)
  3. Communal – pay per period (off-plot)
  4. Public – pay per use (off-plot)

Therefore, this sets aside issues of improved/unimproved (let alone safely managed), to zoom in on whether the toilet is on/off plot and the payment arrangement.


* In Dhaka, there is also data representative of ‘slum’ areas (as defined by the Bangladesh Centre of Urban Studies). All information on sampling is in the city reports.

In the city-wide data, the graph shows that private household sanitation is used by the majority of households across these cities, with a sizeable proportion also using on-plot household shared. Only in Hawassa, Ethiopia, does communal sanitation play a role, for around 6% of households. In the data for low-income areas, it is clear that sharing plays a far larger role. In the Dhaka slums, less than 20% have private household toilet, and communal sanitation comprises almost 40% of toilet use. Pay-per-use public toilets were almost never used as the primary sanitation option in these cities, but this does not mean they don’t play an important role in providing sanitation options when people are out and about. nb. there was no open defecation reported as primary option in any city.

These categories were not derived from a single household survey question, but a series of questions about the attributes of the categories (questionnaire here). The difference between “household shared” and “communal” is that the former involves households sharing a toilet on their plot, with whatever cost-sharing arrangement they decide together, if any. The latter is normally a bigger “toilet block” type of arrangement where households can pay per month or similar for access whenever needed, and they have to leave their plot to get there (see this paper). Public toilets can be used by anyone, either for a small fee for each use or for free.

I’m not suggesting that the above categories are the best way to go. More work is needed on which categorisations are most important for policy/planning. Definitely it will be more than one set, as you can’t get all the relevant information (imp./unimp., on/off-plot, who can access, payment etc.) into one variable without it becoming unmanageable. The ways in which we categorise sanitation options and frame household survey questions and response categories are crucial for a good understanding of what is going on. Any given study or monitoring regime will have its own priorities. Whatever is done, it is key is that categories are well-defined, and enumerators (who are not sanitation specialists if a data collection firm is being used) understand the difference between different categories.

The JMP is still revising its “core questions” for household sanitation, but the latest JMP-endorsed questions are the module in the latest round of MICS here. The ones applicable to sharing are pasted below. So next time you’re doing an urban survey, best to use the below questions, unless you have a good reason not to! That way we’re all working towards consistent and comparable data on shared sanitation in the future.


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