Dec 6, 2007
Sanitation woes cry out for low-cost solutions
By P. Jayaram, India Correspondent
NEW DELHI - WHEN sanitation campaigner Bindeswar Pathak walked into Delhi's five-star Maurya Sheraton with a ragtag group of 38 in tow, the hotel's general manager pleaded with him to go elsewhere.
The manager knew Dr Pathak, a high-caste brahmin, well. The problem was with his companions, who belonged to India's community of nightsoil carriers who remove sewage from toilets manually and are considered the lowest of the low in the Hindu caste ladder.
'I told him I will have lunch with them and assured him I'll pay,' Dr Pathak, 65, told The Straits Times, recalling the incident three years ago.
Despite a ban in 1993, nightsoil carrying continues. There are still an estimated half a million people who clean toilets without sewerage manually.
And they are much needed if shunned by society.
A staggering 73 per cent of the Indian population, or about 750 million people, either relieve themselves in the open or use unhygienic, dry bucket latrines.
'It is like the entire population of Europe sitting on their haunches from the Elbe in the east to the Pyrennes in the west,' said Dr Pathak, who heads the Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement, a Delhi-based toilet advocacy charity.
India is not alone in its lack of proper sanitation.
Some 2.6 billion people - or a third of the world's population and most in developing countries - have no access to proper toilets.
Half of them live in India and China, a stark reminder of the challenges facing the world's two most populous countries despite their spectacular economic growth.
It was to look for viable solutions to this problem that 170 delegates from 40 countries met at the World Toilet Summit in New Delhi last month.
The main theme of the summit - co-hosted by Sulabh, the Indian government and the Singapore-based World Toilet Organisation - was realising the United Nation's Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people living without water and sanitation by 2015.
The UN has declared 2008 the 'UN Year of Sanitation' as part of efforts to reach this goal.
The deliberations at the summit centred on how to bring low-cost, environmentally safe toilets to millions of people, mostly in developing countries. It is a daunting task.
In India, the first sanitation law was passed in 1878, just 30 years after being passed in England. Another Act banning manual scavenging and construction of dry latrines was passed in 1993.
As always, there is a wide gap between government policies and their implementation.
Although cities like Delhi have laws imposing fines of 50 rupees (less than S$2) for people caught relieving themselves in the open, they are hardly enforced.
Dr Pathak said unless adequate social awareness is created, significant progress will be elusive.
Health experts warn that human waste that seeps through the soil contaminates the water table and water bodies.
In India, this causes waterborne diseases that kill 500,000 children every year before they reach the age of five, mostly from diarrhoea.
According to the World Health Organisation, the lack of safe water and sanitation causes 80 per cent of enteric diseases like cholera, dysentery, typhoid, paratyphoid, hepatitis, hookworm and diarrhoea.
But the situation in India is improving ever so slightly even in the rural areas.
A Rural Sanitation Programme launched in 1986 was restructured to the Total Sanitation Campaign in 1999. Under it, 9.45 million flush-latrines have been built, according to official statistics.
Federal Rural Development Minister Raghvansh Prasad Singh told last month's conference that India was investing US$3.45 billion (S$5 billion) in sanitation projects, including schemes to re-train nightsoil carriers for other vocations.
However, a resource crunch and shortage of water make building expensive sewage systems in remote rural areas unfeasible.
Dr Pathak said: 'Sewage systems are essentially 19th-century technology. We need modern solutions.'
His Sulabh sanitation movement has introduced eco-friendly, affordable and hygienic twin-pit composting toilets that use less than two litres of water to flush, as against conventional toilets that need 12 to 14 litres. They can be built with locally available materials, are free from foul smell, flies and mosquitoes and can easily be connected to sewers when the latter are set up.
Dr Pathak, who began building these simple toilets in the 1970s, has also developed a low-cost system that turns waste into water, fertiliser for crops and biogas to generate electricity.
Sulabh has set up over 6,000 such community toilets across India. It has also helped 15 countries in Africa to build such toilets.
Cambodia and Laos have approached his organisation to set up Sulabh toilets there, he said.
At the summit, a South African company, African Sanitation, showed a solar-powered commode that runs without water, and requires no plumbing and almost no maintenance.
Once a week, a tray below it is emptied of waste that has been turned into an almost odourless compost by a solar heater and natural bacteria.
But as African Sanitation's Lukas Oosthuizen discovered, cultural differences would require the addition of a water tray to the design before it could be deployed effectively in India.
'We discovered that people here are washers, not wipers,' he said.
'Sewage systems are essentially 19th-century technology. We need modern solutions.'
DR BINDESWAR PATHAK (above), a sanitation campaigner in India, on the need for eco-friendly, affordable and hygienic solutions to the world's sanitation problems
NEW-AGE LOOS: Different models of Sulabh flush compost toilets - which require less than two litres of water to flush - on display at the Sulabh International Toilet Museum in New Delhi in October. -- PHOTO: AFP