Toh socho, as actor Vidya Balan tells the village Kaki in the radio commercial for the ‘Nirmal Bharat’ campaign. Defecating in the open, she explains, helps diseases to spread. And the figures are alarming: according to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, around 1.7 billion people in Asia and the Pacific still do not have access to safe toilets or latrines. As many as 780 million people still practise open defecation, and around 80 per cent of waste water is discharged into the environment without treatment. The figures for India are more depressing: studies show that while 900 million people have mobile phones, about 600 million people have no proper toilets.
A survey by international NGO WaterAid has ranked India second on the list of the ‘world’s worst places for sanitation’, with not even one in every five Indians having access to sanitation though this is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. It is worse in rural areas, of course: only three in every 100 villagers have toilets!
In March 2014, experts from around the world gathered in New Delhi to discuss ways and means in which this situation can possibly be tackled. The Foundation has also contributed US$15 million to the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) Sanitation Financing Partnership Trust Fund, set up last year. This Fund, which is putting more than US$28 million in non-sewered sanitation and septage management projects across the region in the next five years, aims to help provide safe sanitation to families in Asia’s cities and rural communities who still lack access to basic sanitation facilities and services. It is supporting three projects: the South Asia Urban Knowledge Hub (k-hub); a pilot and demonstration activity facility; and septage management in coastal towns in Bangladesh.
While k-hub is a network of four research and training institutions in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka for city managers, utility staff, policy makers, academics and the private sector to exchange information and experience for improved service delivery, the second project supports testing and validation of pilot approaches to policies, technologies and business models. The third, focusing on Bangladesh, will support pilot projects in eight towns and support capacity building besides promoting private-sector participation in septage management.
In Thailand, the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) has an ongoing project that has been awarded US$5 million under the Gates Foundation for its ‘Reinventing the Toilets’ programme. Officially called ‘Sustainable Decentralised Waste water Management in Developing Countries – Design, Operation and Monitoring’, this project uses a market-driven approach to make these innovative decentralised systems saleable as well as affordable. "We want to build toilets for the urban poor that cost about US$250 (Rs15,000) each," says Dr Thammarat Koottatep, an 18-year veteran researcher at AIT in environmental engineering, wastewater treatment and decentralised sanitation technologies and planning.
"It is not so difficult to build toilets with septic tanks; the main problem is the collection, treatment and disposal of the waste." Before coming up with this project, he and his team conducted a study and realised that there are two fundamental challenges: to expand and improve sanitation without central sewers, and to make sanitation services safe and sustainable by addressing the failure to effectively transport, treat and re-use waste captured in on site facilities.
Four colleges – Indian Institute of Technology (Mumbai), Vishwakarma Institute of Technology (Pune), Thammasat University (Thailand) and Ho Chi Minh University (Vietnam) are working on the invention and prototyping of a decentralised wastewater treatment systems (DEWATS) technology to treat and discharge a pathogen-free domestic effluent, and ready- for-reuse products. These prototype technologies, already field-tested successfully for single families and apartment blocks or for community wastewater management, are being further tried out in Bangkok and Pune.
"These four organisations are working to innovate a new-generation toilet," says Dr Koottatep. VIT Pune, which has signed an MoU with AIT, is playing a prominent role in this project – collecting data, conducting research, designing and developing the project with the active participation of many of its students and faculty members.Explains Koottatep: "We aim to create a toilet which will process waste water in homes and convert it into electricity and bio-gas, reducing the costs for the urban poor users and preventing various kinds of diseases that occur due to poor sanitation conditions. It will also help save water as it will use only one litre for flushing against the usual 10-12 litres."
Fifteen years ago, the Government of India launched its Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA), meant to be a community-led total sanitation programme that is demand-driven and people-centred. Focused on changing cultural norms to prevent open defecation rather than building infrastructure, it has had its successes: in Maharashtra, where it began in 1999, more than 2,000 Gram Panchayats have achieved ‘open defecation free’ status. While the Government gives Rs10,000 to every family to construct a toilet, the villages that achieve this status receive monetary rewards and high publicity under the Nirmal Gram Puraskar programme.
Most of the achievements, however, have been in urban and semi-urban areas. Witness the Pune-headquartered Sulabh Shauchalaya founded by sociologist and social activist Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak as long ago as in 1970, which boasts a string of commendable achievements: 1.3 million household toilets constructed, 54 million Government toilets based on its design, 8,000-plus community toilet blocks, 640 towns made scavenging free and 15 million people using toilets based on its design daily – but a large proportion of these are in towns, not villages. Even the Ministry of Rural Development has offered to fit railway coaches with ‘green’ bio-toilets built by the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO). Why this concentration on urban and semi-urban areas rather than villages? "The slum population is very dense, and so more vulnerable to disease," Koottatep says.