cleaning india

Why community toilets won’t reduce open defecation in rural India

What India needs is a Latrine Use Revolution.

Imagine that you are from rural Uttar Pradesh. You live in a kaccha house with your family, with your brother’s family living next door. You have defecated in the open your whole life. It’s something that you consider to be good, even healthy: going out in the open early in the morning gives you the chance to take a walk, get some fresh air, check on your fields, and meet your neighbors.

Then one day, your brother decides to build a latrine for his family. He invests a fair amount of money into it, making sure that it has a large pit and pucca walls. Only some members of his family use the latrine, like his pregnant daughter-in-law, since everyone else prefers to go outside. Although a latrine has been constructed just next door, that too in your brother’s home, you would never consider using it regularly. It might be alright to use it “in emergencies” but otherwise, you and your family continue to defecate in the open every day.

With the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission today, there are many who are vigorously advocating community latrines as a real policy solution to ending open defecation in India. The idea is that if we can build a few toilets for use in rural communities, where close to 90% of India’s open defecation occurs, then people without latrines in their homes can use them to avoid going out in the open. But the story above is a common one. In addition to widespread lack of demand for latrine use and social fragmentation that makes the maintenance of shared latrines difficult, there is a clear discomfort in rural India around the idea of sharing latrines, making community latrines unlikely to work.

SQUAT survey

My colleagues and I at the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics recently conducted a survey of sanitation attitudes and practices in over 3,200 households in rural Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, and Haryana (the SQUAT Survey).  What we found is that people in rural north India very often do not use, and definitely do not share, their latrines.

There are a few important reasons why community latrines in rural India are unlikely to reduce open defecation.  First, many people who have latrines in their own homes continue to defecate in the open, so it is misguided to assume that they would use a community latrine if it were available.  In our survey, over 40% of households with a working latrine had at least one member who still defecates in the open.  In fact, almost half of people who defecate in the open say that they do so because it is pleasurable, comfortable, or convenient.  They are not interested in someone building them a toilet, and so a community toilet will not suddenly make them want to use one.

Wrong focus

Second, people in rural India do not share latrines. According to 2012 UNICEF/WHO data, while 20% of urban households without a household latrine used a shared or public toilet, only 5% of rural households did. Our survey similarly showed how infrequent latrine sharing is in rural India: less than 1% of households without a latrine use a community latrine. The discomfort with latrine sharing is demonstrated clearly by the fact that only 7% of households in our study that have a working latrine reported that non-household members also use it. We spoke to many households, like the one above, in which even brothers living next door to one another don’t share their latrines. Though it is possible that attitudes can change, sharing latrines is incredibly uncommon, suggesting how difficult it will be to make community latrines a palatable alternative to open defecation, if we can manage to convince people to want to use a latrine at all.

And third, it is naïve to simplify villages into homogenous communities that live in harmony and care for the wellbeing of all their neighbors. Rather, people are divided along lines of gender, religion, caste, and economic status that make cooperation complicated. Community or public toilets in urban India are difficult to keep in good condition, but still might be a good solution for the urban context. However, it is improbable to assume that people in rural India will use community toilets, coming together to maintain them so that they are available for those who need them. With such deep divisions, in an environment where latrine sharing is already so rare, why would entire villages share them?

What India needs is a Latrine Use Revolution. Community toilets are just another construction-focused solution to the problem of open defecation. As long as people continue to resist building and using latrines in their own homes, or in the homes of their family members, they will not use community latrines. Let’s shift the focus of the upcoming Swacch Bharat Mission to changing behavior, and convince every rural Indian that they want to use a latrine rather than go in the open.  Only then will we truly make progress on making India free of open defecation by 2019.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions. This is the crux of the recommendations put forth by BASF.

The proposed solutions, based on a study of water issues in cities such as Mumbai, take into account different aspects of water management and distribution. Backed by a close understanding of the cost implications, they can make a difference in tackling urban water challenges. These solutions include:

Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

For BASF, the proposed solutions are an extension of their close engagement with developing water management and water treatment solutions. The products developed specially for waste and drinking water treatment, such as Zetag® ULTRA and Magnafloc® LT, focus on ensuring sustainability, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the water and sludge treatment process.

BASF is also associated with operations of Reliance Industries’ desalination plant at Jamnagar in Gujarat.The thermal plant is designed to deliver up to 170,000 cubic meters of processed water per day. The use of inge® ultrafiltration technologies allows a continuous delivery of pre-filtered water at a consistent high-quality level, while the dosage of the Sokalan® PM 15 I protects the desalination plant from scaling. This combination of BASF’s expertise minimises the energy footprint of the plant and secures water supply independent of the seasonal fluctuations. To know more about BASF’s range of sustainable solutions and innovative chemical products for the water industry, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.