The Business of Waste: Professionalizing Septic Tank and Latrine Desludging in Indonesia

PD PAL Jaya delivers desludging services at the office of Pademangan Barat urban village, Jakarta, during the LLTT promotion. Photo credit: Shinta Nurwulan/USAID IUWASH PLUS

The majority of Indonesia’s urban poor, like most urban poor in developing and low-to-middle income countries, rely on onsite sanitation. Indonesia has made progress in the sector, with 77 percent of its population having access to at least basic sanitation, such as a pit latrine or septic tank. However, the vast majority of Indonesia’s urban human waste is still not being safely captured and managed before it is released back into the environment. Until recently, most urban Indonesians were dependent on informal, unregulated on-call fecal sludge removal—but at a price. Desludging fees were highly variable and unregulated. Septic tank maintenance occurred irregularly, if at all. Desludgers engaged in unsafe collection and transportation practices. And perhaps most troubling—illegal dumping of human waste into nearby rivers or canals was commonplace due to a combination of limited treatment infrastructure capacity and the appeal of cost and/or time savings for desludgers.

Emerging evidence highlights the clear and important linkages among exposure to untreated fecal waste, childhood stunting, and human capital. Poor sanitation and water quality, along with associated diarrheal diseases, rank among the leading risk factors for stunting worldwide. With approximately 9 million of its children under the age of 5 suffering from stunting, Indonesia is no stranger to these adverse social and human capital impacts.

In response, the USAID–funded Indonesia Urban Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Penyehatan Lingkungan untuk Semua (IUWASH PLUS) project launched the Regular Desludging Services or Layanan Lumpur Tinja Terjadwal (LLTT) Guidelines. Endorsed by the Government of Indonesia (GOI), the LLTT Guidelines now serve as the principal authority and primary driver in formalizing Indonesia’s desludging services across the country. The guidelines detail a 14-step process for creating LLTT, including the establishment of a cost recovery tariff model. Now, with additional support from the GOI and several donor agencies, the guidelines are being rolled out nationwide. For the first time, 40 cities across Indonesia will establish regulated, scheduled desludging services using the LLTT Guidelines—and benefit hundreds of thousands of households.  

The LLTT Guidelines is a product of the experiential knowledge gained during seven years of planning and implementing scheduled desludging services across six Indonesian cities. USAID through DAI–implemented IUWASH and IUWASH PLUS worked in close collaboration with the GOI to take a comprehensive, systems approach to improving fecal sludge management along the full service chain.

Introducing a scheduled desludging service meant registering customers and scheduling regular tank/pit emptying with licensed desludging units. Identified government agents—such as wastewater operators—planned collections, oversaw payments, and monitored trucks, thus improving transport efficiency and operational cost recovery, while reducing the likelihood of illegal dumping. Through a “learning by doing” process, the IUWASH projects identified seven key planning aspects of scheduled desludging. These key planning aspects—operations, infrastructure, procedures, regulations, financing, institutions, and customers—set the framework for each city’s tailored assistance package to establish and roll out scheduled desludging services.  

Knowing that early and strong commitment from city leaders would be critical to LLTT’s success, IUWASH identified three municipalities that had active wastewater operators already in place. In 2012, IUWASH launched the desludging services in Surakarta City, Makassar City, and DKI Jakarta. In these three municipalities, IUWASH worked with the GOI, the World Bank, and local stakeholders to implement a range of coordinated activities aligned with the seven key planning aspects. These activities ranged from developing cost recovery tariff models, upgrading customer paper databases to mobile phone-based data collection, improving location accuracy, and helping utilities better know their customers. Three additional municipalities later joined these cities in 2014—Bekasi, Gresik, and Bogor cities. IUWASH PLUS currently supports nine more cities’ LLTT initiatives.

Establishing, regulating, and monitoring scheduled desludging services at national and local levels has been a game changer for Indonesia’s urban centers. But as LLTT is scaled across the country, and demand grows with Indonesia’s rapid urbanization, it will be important for the country’s local and national governments to continue investing in treatment infrastructure. With land and financing limited,  emerging evidence surrounding the viability of off-grid, small scale treatment plants may offer additional promise for Indonesia. Reductions in treatment cost, gained from new technology, could translate into meaningful incentives to institutionalize proper disposal of fecal sludge in Indonesia, helping to accelerate the country’s progress toward safe water, sanitation, and hygiene services for all.

By Alifah Sri Lestari, Deputy Chief of Party, USAID IUWASH PLUS Project and Kate Edelen, DAI Global Environment and WASH Sector Fellow