Community-Led Total Sanitation in Madagascar

Lying on my back, the hot Madagascar sun beating down on me. Waiting. Waiting for the water to be ready to drink. 

So. Thirsty.

Madagascar, October 2011. I was volunteering for my husband Travis Steffens’ PhD research project on the impacts of habitat fragmentation on lemur species in northwest Madagascar. We had set up camp nearby some patches of forest where Travis was conducting his research. Although we were close to forest, and potentially lemurs, we were not close to a water source—the nearest water source was approximately 5 kilometers away, in a small village called Andranahobaka.

Clearly, to live and work near these fragments, we needed a water solution. Travis ultimately arranged to have our water brought in via a zebu cart (zebu are domesticated, humpbacked cattle). Every three days, one of three different men from the village would fill our jerry cans with 200 liters of water, and drive the zebu cart full of water to our camp. 

Great, problem solved, right? Well, almost.

The catch was, that water was not potable. Our “water delivery man” would fill up our containers from their village water source, yes, but if we were to drink that water as is, we would almost certainly become very ill because the village, like many of its kind in Madagascar, has no central toilet, and open defecation is common.

To make that water ready to drink, we had to run it through a gravity filter, add a purification solution, and then wait a half hour (sometimes on our backs in the hot, hot sun). We never got sick from our treated the water, but unfortunately we witnessed many of the local villagers who drink that same, but untreated water, on a daily basis suffer from very preventable diseases, a consequence of a lack of  effective sanitation.

In 2008, at the Stockholm World Water Week the President of Madagascar announced that 63.2% of the population of Madagascar lacked access to potable water, and 73.7% of the population lacked access to sanitation. According to, over 4000 children in Madagascar die every year from diarrhea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation. It is clear that something needs to be done.

Traditional investments in sanitation have been targeted at individual households, and often involve installing toilets and implementing education programs that highlight the importance of using those toilets (Robinson 2006). However, these types of conventional hygiene interventions are often too formal, and take a more negative “this is what you are doing wrong” approach, that can be ineffective (Robinson 2006). That’s why organizations like Azafady in Madagascar are turning to Community-Led Total sanitation (CLTS).

CLTS is an innovative method that is designed to inspire communities to take action to become “open defecation free.” Robinson (2006) highlights several ways in which CLTS differs from traditional sanitation projects:

  1. It focuses on stopping open defecation, rather than simply building toilets.
  2. It highlights the need for collective action from the community.
  3. There is no toilet subsidy—each household finances their own toilets.
  4. It promotes low-cost homemade toilets constructed using local materials.

These techniques help communities feel ownership for their facilities (Robinson 2006), and pride in the work that they did to implement their own sanitation program.

In Madagascar, Azafady, an award-winning British registered charity partnered with an independent Malagasy NGO, is piloting a CLTS program. With “Project Magnampy,” Azafady is mobilizing communities to eliminate open defecation through participatory and interactive tools. The goal of this project is to eliminate open defecation, increase access to potable water, and thus facilitate a long-term behavioural change in sanitation practices within several Malagasy communities.

Today, I sit in my Toronto apartment, where I can walk over and fill up my glass with pristine water any time I want. However, after my experience in Madagascar, now every time I walk over to the tap, I appreciate the clean water, and I think about the villagers in Madagascar who continue to drink water that is making them ill.

This October, Travis Steffens will return to Madagascar, where he and other Planet Madagascar team members will visit the Azafady CLTS project. In the near future, we hope to implement a similar project in communities in northwest Madagascar.

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