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.
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.