Water and sanitation are cornerstones to public health and considered as a basic human right. Yet, globally, 4.2 billion people still do not have access to safely managed sanitation services and 2.0 billion people do not have basic sanitation facilities such as toilets or latrines.
The existing sanitation systems around the world are vulnerable to climate change-related threats. Faecal contamination due to flooding of sewage systems and limited or no access to handwashing facilities near toilets in drought prone/struck geographies further add to the health burden. With climate change worsening every year, we are running out of time to create a sanitation solution that can collect human waste in a safe, accessible, and dignified setting.
India ranks fifth on the Climate Risk Index 2020 released by Germanwatch, an enviroment think tank. Severe rainfalls followed by heavy flooding and landslides have worsened India’s vulnerability. While Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), has been able to improve access and use of improved sanitation facilities, we are yet to see how resilient these toilets would be in the face of floods or extreme weather conditions.
The twin-pit latrines promoted under SBM are scalable, implementable, and cost-effective solutions. The process of switching of pits and extracting pit manure is safe and can be used for agricultural purposes. It has emerged as a promising environment-friendly technology. Making certain adjustments to the location and design of toilets can also go a long way in mitigating challenges posed by extreme weather conditions. For example, toilets located in flood-prone and low-lying areas should be relocated to elevated grounds. Raising latrines and ensuring minimum distance between pit and water table can help prevent contamination of underground water. Bringing water sources and handwashing facilities closer to the toilet could result in timesaving. This could allow women to engage in non-illness-related tasks, provide more time for childcare and time for socialization and education activities.
Several initiatives have been undertaken globally to develop innovative and sustainable toilet models, which are environment-friendly and scalable. Some of the initiatives such as The Toilet Board Coalition’s Accelerator and Re-invent the Toilet Challenge have been funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop improved sanitation systems that are sustainable, scalable and capable of recovering valuable organic resources.
Container-based toilets constructed by Sanivation in Kenya transform excreta into a clean-burning alternative to charcoal with longer burn time and lesser smoke. The VUNA project in Switzerland uses an affordable dry sanitation system that produces fertilizer for all types of plants from human urine called Aurin. In India, Ekam Eco Solutions incubated at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, has developed Zeroder- a green toilet, which is a waterless and odourless urinal that can be retrofitted in existing urinals and can save 50,000-150,000 litres of water every year. Toilet hackathons have been organized by the Government of India to support and promote development of climate-resilient and sustainable solutions.
With large-scale sanitation drives being implemented throughout the world by a number of stakeholders such as governments, donors, national and international NGOs, etc., the need of the hour is to generate data on the effectiveness, affordability, and scalability of innovative and climate-resilient sanitation technologies. This information will enable implementers to take informed decisions on how to leverage these technologies based on local contexts.
With the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to ensure that everyone has equitable access to sustainable sanitation, clean water, and handwashing facilities. In the face of increasing risks to communities and their environments, sustainable sanitation solutions will play a key role in shoring up energy and water systems and ensuring that communities can survive shocks and recover from them more quickly.
(The author is Senior Manager - Research at Sambodhi Research & Communications, a multidisciplinary research organization offering data driven insights to national and global social development organisations.)