In a recent article in The Times of India, Sunita Narain brings up the tried and true dilemma of how throwing new toilets at a city, without an existing waste treatment infrastructure, is not a valid answer to its poor sanitation problems.
"This is because we often confuse toilets with sanitation. But the fact is that toilets are mere receptacles to receive waste; when we flush or pour water, the waste flows into a piped drain, which could be either connected, or not, to a sewage treatment plant (STP). This STP could be working, or not. In the majority of cases, human excreta (our household waste) is not safely disposed but instead discharged, untreated into the nearest river, lake or a drain."
Indeed! We’ve mentioned multiple times on this very site that simply manufacturing and installing toilets, doesn’t answer the call for better sanitation. In the end, any sanitation solution we create needs a corresponding way to deal with the waste we humans create. Be it, gigantic sewage treatment plants or basic septic tanks, we need a place for our waste go instead of our rivers and streams.
Despite this common sense though, we still need efficient ways to remove our waste and transport it into receptacles safely for treatment. For many countries, retrofitting or building new sewerage systems in towns and cities is disruptive and cost-prohibitive, to the point of impossibility.
So, as Narain wrote so well about, Governments are starting to see the value of working within the existing infrastructure.
"Governments are beginning to realise that yesterday’s system can be re-engineered to work for today and tomorrow. They now recognize the fact that septic tanks are decentralised waste collection systems. Instead of thinking of building an underground sewerage network – that is never built or never completed – it would be best to think of these systems as the future of urban sanitation. After all, we have gone to mobile telephony without the landline. Individual septic tanks could be the way to achieve full sanitation solutions."
It’s important remember: sometimes you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Many times you just have to find different ways to use it.