The pendulum has swung towards the sanitation extreme under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Water is the forgotten piece of the sanitation puzzle, one without which the great Indian leap into the toilet can possibly come undone. Indians wash up after defecating and most also wash their hands with ash, mud or soap. At a conservative estimate open defecation needs about a litre of water for ablutions. Toilet defecation raises that to at least three litres.
Defecating in the open may not entail an additional burden on water providers, ie, women, using toilets will. They have to fetch water from the nearest source. In rural India, with the exception of the privileged 14% who get water in their houses, the rest have to fetch it from distances varying from 25m to 250m. These 86% are officially considered to have access to water have the availability, at 40 litres per capita per day, within a distance of 100m.
The access, yield and quality of a source decline rapidly after installation, creating a category of habitations called partly covered (33.9% of the total). According to a World Bank study indicated for handpumps, the difference between design and output of water from handpumps was about 10%. In the case of piped water schemes 30% households do not get water daily. Piped water schemes are most prone to breakdowns on account of high running costs, a lack of trained people to run them, a lack of a revenue model, lack of electricity, drying up of sources and poor planning.
To use a toilet daily, a family of five will need an additional 15 litres of water daily. In addition to mode of supply, water sources are under pressure. About 80% of water for human use comes from underground. Over the past three decades, groundwater has become increasingly scarce with the rapid expansion of groundwater-fed agriculture. Dug wells and handpumps that use shallow aquifers are the first to go, followed by tubewells for drinking water. Of the 7,928 blocks in the country, the Central Groundwater Board has classified about 14% as over-exploited or dark zones.
Added to the scarcity is the quality aspect. Natural and anthropogenic pollutants affect a significant percentage of groundwater. Add to this the problem of unregulated toilet construction. Norms require a minimum distance of 10m between a toilet and water source but this is never followed.
One is to build toilets that do not need water for flushing but safely separate excreta from human beings. These also separate the solids from the liquids and converts them into manure. These toilets can now be made for around Rs 12,000, the amount of subsidy the government provides under the new sanitation campaign. The second is to ensure faecal containment that is the bare minimum that can be done to remove open defecation.
To succeed, the sanitation campaign has to be executed as part of a larger water cycle. The purpose is to improve health but without ensuring adequacy of water for ablutions, and safety of water from pollution, the cycle will not be complete. The toilets may well be constructed but Swachh Bharat will become another failed mission.
Nitya Jacob is head of policy, WaterAid India
The views expressed by the author are personal