New IDS research project seeks to re-imagine ‘shit’ as ‘brown gold’

23rd November 2020

A new IDS-led research project seeks to re-imagine sanitation in rapidly urbanising areas in Asia and Africa to help address the sanitation crisis, enhance off–grid economies and improve the well-being of poor and vulnerable women and men, and marginalised communities such as Dalits, migrants, sanitation workers and refugees. 

The ‘Brown Gold’ project was announced this week as part of the UKRI’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Collective Programme. The UKRI GCRF Collective Programme is an investment of £147 Million designed to impact global health, education, sustainable cities, food systems, conflict and resilience. It brings together diverse global partnerships from across the UK and developing countries to generate innovative solutions to these challenges. The ‘Brown Gold’ project is one of six international development research projects led by IDS as part of the GCRF Collective Programme.

The global challenge of sanitation for sustainable cities

An estimated 4.2 billion people globally living without safe access to sanitation. This year’s World Toilet Day focused on sustainable sanitation and climate change. This is an important focus because as outlined in UN Global Goal 6 (water and sanitation for all by 2030), sanitation goes beyond ‘access to toilets’ to include tackling unsafe excreta disposal and the lack of adequate infrastructure for sewage and wastewater collection and treatment. While global sanitation efforts have increased toilet coverage especially in urban areas, they have often by-passed the poor and marginalised and excluded people because of their gender, caste, ethnicity or class. The capital-intensive and centralised nature of conventional sewage and wastewater collection and treatment systems have especially failed those living in informal settlements who are not connected to centralised systems (and unlikely to be in the foreseeable future). The sanitation workers delivering services in these settlements are often themselves from marginalised groups (e.g. Dalits in India). They suffer from discrimination, lack of dignity and status, and are disproportionately exposed to health risks including Covid-19. The pandemic has laid bare these existing problems and inequalities, whilst also increasing the risks for poor and vulnerable communities and the sanitation workers that serve them.

All these issues make sustainable and safely managed sanitation in rapidly growing urban areas a huge intractable challenge in global development.

Re-imagining off-grid sanitation in urban areas

Brown Gold’ combines social science, law, engineering, microbiology and creative arts, to address the challenge of sustainable and safely managed sanitation in rapidly growing ‘off-grid’ urban areas in Ethiopia, Ghana, India and Nepal.

Its starting point is to re-frame ‘shit’, a polluting and harmful waste product to be disposed of, as ‘brown gold’, a resource rich in water, nutrients and organic compounds, that can make a real contribution to the development of sustainable cities. Rather than focusing on the visible aspects of being on-grid in terms of hardware, toilet connections, and treatment systems, its focus is on the invisible and dangerous aspects of being off-grid. This includes invisible and powerless citizens who are denied their basic right to sustainable sanitation as well as the invisible flows of dangerous pathogens due to poor toilets and unsafe containment of shit and wastewater.

The aim is to rethink and reimagine these off-grid situations as a fertile ground for people-centred, sustainable and equitable innovation. Faecal sludge is rich in water, nutrients and organic compounds, but usually this resource remains hidden in the sludge.

The hope is that reimagining the problem creates not just the possibility for new innovation in delivering good quality sanitation services but that it also promotes circular-economy driven sustainable sanitation to encourage resource recovery and reuse in informal settlements – turning ‘shit’ to gas or fertilizer for example. The creation of these sustainable economic opportunities might in turn lift the status of the sanitation workers and excluded residents in informal settlements.

This reimagining is also an exciting opportunity for truly interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work bringing together social science, law, engineering, microbiology and creative arts expertise, with partners in each country who will work closely with local community groups, state agencies, civil society and the private sector.

The project paused work this year due to the pandemic. We hope that we can begin fieldwork from the second half of 2021 to generate original insights on sustainable sanitation and help realise basic rights to sanitation, better recovery post-Covid, and greater equality in rapidly urbanising contexts.

Photo credit: Faecal sludge reuse | Sharada Prasad CS | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


Lyla Mehta

Professor Lyla Mehta is a Professorial Fellow at IDS. Her work focuses on water and sanitation, forced displacement and resistance, climate change, scarcity, rights and access, resource grabbing and the politics of environment/ development and sustainability.