Diksha Nawany, Analyst, Urban Sanitation
Safe sanitation is imperative to ensure that we meet the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 6, which aims at ensuring availability and sustainable management of sanitation for all. Urban India has made significant strides for sanitation with the government’s flagship Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban. However, as one thinks about the sanitation sector and its evolution over the last few years, there are millions of people still lacking the basic knowledge around sanitation and hygiene.
Let’s unfold some insights and interlinkages, which often remain only with sanitation experts. Here are a few things everyone should know about urban sanitation.
Providing access to toilets or a sewer connection is only a part of the solution and not ‘the solution.’ Of the 4000+ cities in India, less than 10% have a sewerage system; and more than 45% of households rely on on-site sanitation, including septic tanks (MoUD 2017). This means most human waste generated in toilets flows untreated in open fields and water bodies, exposing using serious health and environmental hazards.
Sanitation linked diseases put a huge strain on the Indian healthcare sector. 1 out of 10 deaths in India is due to poor sanitation. Untreated faecal sludge and septage from cities is the single biggest source of water pollution in India. This disposal poses a substantial public health threat as citizens can become victims of diseases. For instance, 1 truck of faecal sludge and septage carelessly dumped in the environment is equivalent to approximately 5,000 individuals defecating in the open. Given the huge strain on our drinking water resources, ignoring the importance of faecal waste treatment can worsen the water crisis.
Women, differently-abled individuals, transgender communities, migrants, and the urban poor and marginalized groups are often left out of urban planning and safe sanitation service delivery. Women and girls are exposed to safety and health risks as they have few options to maintain privacy and manage menstrual health in restricted circumstances.
Urban poor communities also lack basic amenities and adequate housing, including toilets, and have higher exposure to untreated waste due to lack of proper sanitation infrastructure in informal settlements. It is important to take the specific needs of marginalized groups into account during planning, design, and pricing. For instance, Mobile She Toilets consider gender intentional infrastructure and design and have been introduced in Hyderabad to increase access for women in public spaces.
Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) have been recognized as the independent third tier of governments (74th Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992). Local governments have been entrusted with the responsibility to provide basic essential services to citizens, including sanitation.
While there has been significant investment in sanitation infrastructure over the last few years, service delivery to citizens requires additional attention, planning, and resources. Municipal governments need to be functionally and fiscally empowered through reforms to be in a position to deliver safe, inclusive, and equitable sanitation services to the most vulnerable. Thus, to reach sanitation outcomes, it is important to also look into the larger municipal governance sector and strengthen local governments to be able to deliver on their sanitation-related functions.
The last decade has seen significant investment in technology solutions and tools towards safe, affordable, and inclusive sanitation infrastructure, from making latrine designs gender intentional to FSM treatment technology for safe disposal/ reuse of wastewater.
Innovation & technology in this space has been instrumental in reaching the most vulnerable. For instance, GIS mapping to plan and increase toilet coverage in urban slums or innovation in desludging trucks and pipes to reach remote, narrow lanes in urban areas. These ensure that exposure to faecal matter in the poorest communities is reduced and waste is safely treated.
Another area where technology plays a huge role in the occupational health and safety of sanitation workers. India sees at least one accident per week, resulting in loss of life for sanitation workers. Innovation in design and mainstreaming technologies for personal protective gear is crucial to reduce the risk of hazards during service provisions such as desludging of septic tanks, cleaning of sewers, or treatment of faecal waste.
COVID-19 is only one kind of disaster, and the threat of another public health outbreak is exacerbated by poor sanitation and hygiene. For instance, during the COVID-19, poorly maintained public and community toilets in urban slums have become hotspots and increased the risks of spread of the virus, making the need for universal access to individual household toilets even more urgent.
According to UNICEF, “Unless adequate water and sanitation services are quickly provided to emergency-affected children and their families, disease and death will follow. And unless good hygiene is consistently practised, the danger of diarrhoea, cholera and other disease outbreaks will persist.” In the absence of disaster-resilient infrastructure and services, the number of people affected due to disasters increases beyond directly affected victims. Further, the vast investment in sanitation can be reversed due to disasters if Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) measures are not considered upfront.
This includes interventions such as designing sanitation infrastructure up to DRR codes, ensuring provisions of sanitation services during disasters, especially to vulnerable groups, building the capacity of officials and first responders on safe and inclusive sanitation, and raising awareness in communities on hygiene practices for mitigation and preparedness.
According to the Water and Sanitation Program (World Bank Group), the funding requirement for Urban Sanitation in India is estimated at INR 5,193 billion for the capital requirement and an additional INR 2,647 billion for operating expenditure requirement over the 2012-32 period. To meet the promising vision of SDG 6, investment in Urban Sanitation is critical from the government, CSR, philanthropy, and social impact investors, keeping in mind that every one dollar invested in sanitation has a global economic return of $5.5 (World Health Organization 2012).
Lastly, even though the responsibility for service delivery sits with local governments, for effective systems change, multiple stakeholders in the sanitation ecosystem need to be activated, including practitioners, nonprofits, private sector players, citizens, funders, and of course, government stakeholders at national, state and local levels.
The user is an Analyst at Dasra.