World Toilet Day: Unlocking Solutions Through Decentralised Sanitation Approaches

Tikender Singh Panwar

To observe World Toilet Day, on November 19, is not just about constructing toilets at homes, but the larger picture is about handling the sanitation crisis.

‘The solution to pollution is dilution’, became the hallmark of urban planning that evolved after the plague in Europe in the 1850s, and continues to be the guiding force.

Urban planning evolved as a fallout of the accidents of the health hazards owing to excessive industrialisation, and ‘no planning at all’. This does not discount the fact that the current toilet schema of piped water, flushed toilets, sinks, and wash basins originated during that period and helped a lot in mitigating the sanitation crisis.

But to observe the United Nations World Toilet Day, on November 19, is not just about constructing toilets at homes, which of course it is, but the larger picture is about handling the sanitation crisis. The ‘solution to pollution is dilution’ needs to be relooked and reimagined, ensuring the fulfilment of Sustainable Development Goal Number 6: ‘Ensure access to water and sanitation to all’ by 2030. For diluting 100 cc of urine, flushing five litres of water cannot be the solution at the current conjuncture when the world is facing an acute shortage of water.

Sanitation: A Large Crisis

According to a UN report there are still 3.5 billion — almost 45 per cent of the global population — living without safe toilets. Around 419 million people still practice open defecation. The disease spread in such a situation is bound to create health hazards. This results in the death of 1,000 children under the age of five years every day. This is a global crisis that poses a threat to nature, and everyone’s health.

In India it is estimated that about 200,000 people die every year due to inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene. In 2016, the per person disease burden due to unsafe water and sanitation was 40 times higher in India than in China, and 12 times higher than in Sri Lanka. Given this, treating wastewater should have become one of the major priorities of the government.

As per a report from the Central Pollution Control Board of India (CPCB) (2009-10), sanitation services have largely been ignored and only 19 per cent of the sewage generated is treated. While wastewater infrastructure is gradually improving, it has essentially focussed on centralised approaches in large cities — leaving lots of small pockets unserved. The CPCB in 2022 reported about the gaps existing in treatment capacity within different cities based on their population size and tier.

In Class I cities, with a population exceeding 1 million, the treatment capacity gap stands at approximately 67 per cent. Similarly, in Class II towns, with a population range of 50,000 to 100,000, the treatment capacity gap is notably higher, at around 95 per cent — highlighting a significant disparity.

Hence, World Toilet Day is not just about individuals constructing toilets, it is about the entire ecosystem that exists in urban centres.

Problems of the Urban Model

The theme this 2023 World Toilet Day is ‘Accelerating Change’. The UN campaign this year is using the tale of the hummingbird that does what it can to fight a fire — carry droplets of water in its beak, conveying a story that each one on this planet must do what we can, however small it is.

The foremost change in addressing the sanitation crisis has been a model of urban planning where a uniform style is adopted. We have seen this in both the phases of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). The SBM cannot be isolated from the way the cities are being built; sanitation needs to be an integral part of the development process.

What the SBM has focused on is to reduce open defecation and build more toilets. The targets were set. A news report suggested that a survey in 2021 “found that more than 45 per cent of India’s population still defecates in the open. The main reason for this is non-maintenance of built toilets in combination with usage of substandard materials for construction.” It also said that sanitation workers in 23 states identified 70,942 single pit latrines in localities which have not been opened even once in the last seven years.

Design Flaws

Even if we presume that the claims made by the government about constructing functional toilets are correct, it is there that the problem lies! How are these toilets being emptied? Where is the faecal sludge being treated, or how is it being disposed of? If just 19 per cent of the total faecal sludge enters sewage treatment plants (STPs), where is the remaining 81 per cent going?

Disturbing as it is, that 81 per cent is entering the ecosystem and contaminating the aquifers and water catchment areas, leading to massive contamination. While writing the vision document for Leh, this author was confronted with a peculiar situation. Nearly 95 per cent of the ground water in Leh is contaminated because of the shift in urban planning from dry latrines to flush toilets, with no means to treat the waste.

Urban planning models are top down and inherently flawed. No wonder that due to the push from global technological giants, the city sanitation plans are designed in such a manner where the STPs are offered as a solution for managing toilet waste rather than decentralised solutions. A common ridicule among urban planners is that the cities sanitation designs are such where an average worker travels eight kilometres for work, whereas their faecal matter travels almost 18 kilometres on an average from the toilet to the STPs. One can imagine the fate of such STPs!

What Could be the Alternatives

The solution is not adding more water to the toilet, rather treating faecal matter in a decentralised manner. One of the ways could be small faecal sludge treatment plants. In addition, local governments must be empowered and the water and waste utility should be under their control, instead of parastatals running them. The STPs, instead of privatising them, should be run by the city governments. Last, but the most important is the people who are engaged in the city sanitation process. Rather than privatising and outsourcing their services, they must be embedded in the city development process.

World Toilet Day is for accelerating the pace towards sustainable sanitation practises, where nature, people, and their health are prioritised; profitmaking must not be the focus here.

Tikender Singh Panwar is the former deputy mayor of Shimla.

The article was first published in The Deccan Herald as World Toilet Day | The solution to the sanitation crisis is decentralisation on November 18, 2023.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

Read more at IMPRI: 

Breathless Cities: The Urgent Need for Sustainable Urbanization in India 

Acknowledgement: This article was posted by Aasthaba Jadeja , a researcher at IMPRI.