Onsite household sanitation technologies such as septic tanks or latrines serve a large percentage of the world’s population. Unfortunately, they experience high failure rates after construction, with resulting environmental and public health consequences. Previous work has suggested that these failures are often a result of an inability to navigate the technology-society nexus. In other words, they represent problems of social sustainability. In order to address this urgent problem, theory is built regarding the social sustainability of infrastructure systems by leveraging established organizational theory. To do this, household level interview data is collected in four communities in rural Bangladesh. Virtually all households in this research population have constructed onsite sanitation systems, typically using their own resources. However, almost half of these systems have since fallen into disrepair, mirroring the high socially based failure rates cited globally from similar systems. Using cross-case qualitative analysis and legitimacy theory, the writers explored what differentiates those households that continue to use and maintain sanitation systems (those with socially sustainable systems) from those that do not (those with socially unsustainable systems). Households in the unsustainable group have adopted toilets ceremonially, with construction decoupled from the actual practice of maintaining and using the sanitation system. Understanding infrastructure abandonment as a form of organizational decoupling gives researchers a new way to analyze and try to solve the problem of postconstruction infrastructure abandonment. Specifically, effectiveness concerns (whether or not desired infrastructure services are actually achieved) and competing rational myths (beliefs regarding how and why things ought to be done) drive decoupling and lead to abandoned sanitation. In order to recouple sanitation structure and practice for continued use and maintenance of onsite systems, designs should consider both effectiveness and competing rational myths. For example, by requiring odor management technology for all improved sanitation infrastructure, infrastructure effectiveness is improved (by delivering odor management) and also the commonly held rational myth of miasma (odors causing illness) is addressed. Therefore it is suggested that, as researchers revise the almost expired millennium development goals, technologies without odor management should be removed from the definition of improved sanitation due to negative contributions to social sustainability. Further, concern with status (likely stemming from community led total sanitation development methods) appears at a similar and high rate in both the socially sustainable and socially unsustainable household groups; it does not differentiate the two groups. Finally, technical support is needed to address effectiveness concerns, share knowledge, and help households move away from ceremonial sanitation adoption and towards locally desired benefits such as improved convenience, odor management, and public health protection.

Kaminsky, J. and Javernick-Will, A. (2015). “Theorizing the Internal Social Sustainability of Sanitation Organizations.” Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, 141 (2), 04014071. doi: 10.1061/(ASCE)CO.1943-7862.0000933