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.
We encourage you to read Sunita Narain’s article. You can get to it by clicking right here.
In a recent New York Times article by Tahmima Anam she documents the stunning lack of public toilets in Bangladesh. Particularly in its cities.
“If I could, I would write a book called “Where to Pee in Bangladesh.” It would be a useful but very short book. It would tell you, for instance, that in our capital city, there are 67 public toilets for over 15 million residents. And of those 67, many have no running water or electricity. According to a 2011 study, only five are fully functional.”
The article reenforces that this problem is a multi-faceted one that the world is coming to grips with. How do we fix a problem like sanitation without pre-existing infrastructure like plumbing and sewers? How do we break social habits that are now multi-generational? It’s solution is far from simple. Solving a lack of functional toilets goes far beyond the logistics of simply installing them where there previously were none (which alone can be a herculean task).
Anam’s article tackles this situation head on, talking about the various ways Bangladesh has tried (and failed) to fix these situation in a variety of ways. It also mirrors the findings from our field work in India. Reinforcing that a holistic approach to implementing sanitation is an absolute must.
It’s a fascinating and sobering read. You can read the article in its entirety here.
Currently, 54% of the entire human population resides in urban areas, by 2050 it is estimated that that statistic will rise drastically to 70%. This explosive growth will cause plenty of challenges but, as The Lancet points out, it’s also a window of opportunities to start addressing these challenges in effective and fair ways.
Like many recent attempts to address global health, The Lancet acknowledges that it all must start with world’s urban poor:
“An estimated 1 billion people worldwide currently live in slums, making up a third of the world’s urban population and two thirds of the urban population in Africa. Defined by UN Habitat, slums are characterised by sufficient living area, security of tenure, availability of basic services, including water and sanitation, and durability of housing. Alex Ezeh of the African Population Health and Research Centre told The Lancet, “What is happening in slums will determine health indicators in urban areas and nationally. Understanding and addressing the drivers of poor health outcomes in slums is an opportunity to start dealing with urban health.” Unfortunately, Millennium Development Goal target 7d to improve the lives of 100 million slum dwellers underestimated the magnitude of the problem by tenfold.”
They then go on to propose three definitive paths to take (these are paraphrased, look for a link to the full text at the bottom).
Governments should reprioritize and reevaluate bringing health and its corresponding services more adequately to the urban poor.
Future urban infrastructure planning should be angled towards the promotion of health and healthier lifestyle.
The opportunity to take the time to make these changes so that they are effective intergenerationally. So that these solutions work not only with the current population, but can grow and adapt to future generation’s needs moving forward.
“Prioritising and equitably addressing urban health post-2015 is an opportunity to accelerate improvements in health—sustainably and justly.”
A great deal of attention in the headlines is about open defecation in India. And rightly so, since the recent violence against women and girls and new research on stunting with its link to open defecation puts it in to the spotlight.
There is another very large sanitation problem though: sewerage treatment systems, their operations, and their inadequate capacity.
Prime Minister Modi has put a spotlight on toilets, as well as the plight of India’s water bodies, especially the river Ganga. This recent article in the Center for Science and the Environment (CSE) Down to Earth magazine highlights the Ganga’s problems. The article notes that a July 2013 report from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) shows unacceptable levels of fecal coliform, a clear sign of human excreta, all along the river’s main body. The famed holy river, like many other water bodies, is much like a sewer.
As highlighted in this RTI Policy Brief, the majority of fecal sludge goes untreated. Where sanitation access is available, far too many urban residents use toilets that are not connected to underground sewerage networks. It is estimated that 75–80% of water pollution by volume is from domestic sewerage. Only 160 out of nearly 8,000 towns have both sewerage systems and a sewage treatment plant, and only 13% of piped sewerage is currently treated.
This concerning graphic in the article presents Pollution Control Board data on fecal coliform counts in the Ganga river. Urbanization and uncontrolled release of human waste is running faster than city administrations can keep up with centralized or decentralized sewage systems.
Given this scenario, on-site waste treatment strategies take on great importance. Ignoring open discharge of human excreta into water bodies is having and will have, far-reaching consequences. Technology development like that happening in the Reinvent the Toilet initiative are innovating new and promising strategies. Their value, their cost-benefit, and their urgency is real.
A recent Research Brief publication from WSP (April, 2014) presents findings from 12 urban case studies on fecal sludge management. This Brief is a useful snapshot of the plight of urban sanitation in large and smaller cities around the world.
Given the rapid pace of urbanization, on-site sanitation solutions are of vital importance. More than 50% of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. There is a planner’s bias towards seeking piped sewerage solutions, but the reality is that there is a lack of political will, land availability and investment dollars for piped systems to adequately close the sanitation gap or keep up with urban population growth. Worse still, these piped systems are inefficient in their consumption of water and energy to make them work.
An estimated 20 million people join the ranks of urban slum areas every year and in these areas, improved sanitation is not available. In these crowded spaces, on-site sanitation is the best option but it is very poorly managed. This WSP Research Brief points to the fact that 64% of the population in the case study cities rely on on-site waste treatment solutions. Yet, in only 22% of these households is the waste from on-site systems properly captured or treated. Large portions of on-site waste in large cities goes either uncollected, or collected and untreated. In many small and medium-sized towns there is little to no safe waste collection and treatment at all.
Untreated waste discharged in crowded urban spaces is a threat. It poses public health issues for city residents, and short and medium-term environmental implications. Adding insult to injury, there are also significant economic costs to poor sanitation (information well-documented in the WSP series on the economics of sanitation).
These case studies are what inspire the Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge and its innovation grants to develop on-site waste treatment systems that manage waste at the site of disposal – advancing the science of non-piped solutions that more effectively treat the waste at its source – thus reducing or eliminating the need for handling and transportation of waste. In other parts of the RTTC, work to develop better “omni-ingestor” or “omni-processing” technologies is ongoing to better service and maintain existing on-site approaches. This WSP Research Brief provides confirmation of the need for these new innovative solutions.