Urban India has made significant strides towards sustainable sanitation in the last decade, especially with the launch of the government’s flagship Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban. These initiatives have helped the country move towards achieving SDG 6 – which aims to make sanitation available for all while managing it sustainably. Though the country continues to remain focused on the cause of sanitation, it is crucial for citizens to understand some relevant truths about Sanitation.
It is necessary to unfold some insights and interlinkages, which often remain only with sanitation experts. Here are 5 things everyone should know about urban sanitation.
Providing access to toilets or a sewer connection is only a part of the solution and not ‘the solution.’ Of the 4000+ cities in India, less than 10% have a sewerage system; and more than 45% of households rely on on-site sanitation systems , including septic tanks (MoUD 2017). This means most human waste generated in toilets flows untreated in open fields and water bodies, exposing citizens to serious health and environmental hazards. Safe treatment and disposal of waste is essential to complete the cycle of a safe sanitation value chain.
Sanitation linked diseases put a huge strain on the Indian healthcare sector. 1 out of 10 deaths in India is due to poor sanitation. Untreated faecal sludge and septage from cities is the single biggest source of water pollution in India. This untreated disposal is a public health threat as citizens become vulnerable to multiple diseases. For instance, 1 truck of faecal sludge and septage carelessly dumped in the environment is equivalent to approximately 5,000 individuals defecating in the open. Given the huge strain on our drinking water resources, ignoring the importance of faecal waste treatment can worsen the water crisis.
Women, differently-abled individuals, transgender communities, migrants, the urban poor and marginalized groups are often left out of urban planning and safe sanitation service delivery. Women and girls are exposed to safety and health risks as they have few options to maintain privacy and manage menstrual health in restricted circumstances.
Urban poor communities also lack basic amenities and adequate housing, including toilets, and have higher exposure to untreated waste due to lack of proper sanitation infrastructure in informal settlements. It is important to take the specific needs of marginalized groups into account during planning, design, and pricing. For instance, Mobile She Toilets , introduced in Hyderabad, consider gender intentional infrastructure and design to increase women’s access to toilets in public spaces. Odisha is also taking a lead in handing over the ownership of operations and maintenance to women led Self-Help Groups (SHG) which will lead to greater financial independence and better sanitation.
The last decade has seen significant investment in technology solutions and tools towards safe, affordable, and inclusive sanitation infrastructure, from making latrine designs gender intentional to FSM treatment technology for safe disposal/ reuse of wastewater.
Innovation & technology in this space has been instrumental in reaching the most vulnerable. For instance, GIS mapping to plan and increase toilet coverage in urban slums or innovation in desludging trucks and pipes to reach remote, narrow lanes in urban areas. These ensure that exposure to faecal matter in the poorest communities is reduced and waste is safely treated.
Another area where technology plays a huge role is in the occupational health and safety of sanitation workers. India sees at least one accident per week, resulting in the death of sanitation workers. Innovation in design and mainstreaming technologies for personal protective gear is crucial to reduce the risk of hazards that sanitation workers are exposed to during desludging of septic tanks, cleaning of sewers, or treatment of faecal waste.
India’s health sector grappled to save the lives of millions affected by COVID-19 and a similar threat of another public health outbreak is looming on the horizon, exacerbated by poor sanitation and hygiene. For instance, during COVID-19, poorly maintained public and community toilets have increased the risks of spread of the virus, making the need for universal access to individual household toilets even more urgent. According to UNICEF, “Unless adequate water and sanitation services are quickly provided to emergency-affected children and their families, disease and death will follow.”
In the absence of disaster-resilient infrastructure and services, the number of people affected due to disasters increases beyond directly affected victims. Further, the vast investment in sanitation can be reversed by disasters if Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) measures are not considered upfront. This includes interventions such as designing sanitation infrastructure up to DRR codes, ensuring provisions of sanitation services during disasters, especially to vulnerable groups, building the capacity of officials and first responders on safe and inclusive sanitation, and raising awareness in communities on hygiene practices for mitigation and preparedness.
According to the Water and Sanitation Program (World Bank Group), the funding requirement for Urban Sanitation in India is estimated at INR 5,193 billion for the capital requirement and an additional INR 2,647 billion for operating expenditure requirement over the 2012-32 period. To meet the promising vision of SDG 6, investment in Urban Sanitation from governments, CSR, philanthropy, and social impact investors is critical, keeping in mind that every $1invested in sanitation has a global economic return of $5.5 (World Health Organization 2012).
Lastly, even though the responsibility for service delivery sits with local governments, multiple stakeholders in the sanitation ecosystem need to be activated to provide adequate support and result in systemic change. These stakeholders include practitioners, nonprofits, private sector players, citizens, funders, and of course, government stakeholders at national, state and local levels.
Not only is the sanitation ecosystem beyond toilets, but it also consists of a complex network of stakeholders which requires adequate funding to achieve global sanitation goals.