Metro Matters: Why chasing toilet numbers not enough for sanitation
With the Swachh Bharat deadline looming, the government is busy constructing thousands of toilets. But many of them remain unused due to lack water supply and sewerage.columns Updated: Apr 25, 2018 18:04 IST
With a deadline to make the country open defecation free by 2019 under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, which started in October 2014, India is busy building toilets like never before. But not all are being used.
A survey by the National Sample Survey Office of 3,788 villages and 2,907 urban blocks in the first eight months of the launch of Swachh Abhiyan showed that in rural areas, six out of 10 toilets didn’t have any water supply. The necessary plumbing required to carry the human waste out of homes to disposal sites was available in only 36% of the toilets in the urban zones. This was the last comprehensive evaluation of the programme.
In the national capital, the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board last year found that as many as 40% of the 10,821 toilets it built since February 2015 remained unused.
At least a third of Delhi’s informal settlements do not have any sewerage. The toilets here have to be emptied out, and the muck has to be carried to sewage treatment plants by tankers, which are predictably irregular. Without sewerage and water links, these structures are reduced to filthy and stinky dry toilets, forcing potential users to defecate in the open.
Merely building toilet structures cannot address sanitation and health concerns. Consider Uganda, one of the worst case studies in Africa. Like Indians, Ugandans traditionally preferred to go outside when nature called. But unlike India, Uganda sought a course correction far back in the 1950s with sanitation drives promoted by its colonial masters.
Under the Public Health Act of 1964, passed two years after Uganda gained independence, every citizen was required to build a dry latrine at home. The church parish and tribal chiefs would go door to door ensuring that each homestead built a toilet — usually a rudimentary mud hut around a hole in the ground with tree logs placed across it.
Driving hundreds of miles across Uganda last month, I could see that most homesteads even in the remotest of villages had three units — the housing hut flanked by a kitchen on one side and a thatched toilet on the other.
The Ugandans did this while battling extreme poverty. Even today, hundreds of students walk barefoot to their schools because their families can’t afford a pair of rubber slippers. Despite electrification, many households even outside Kampala can’t afford electricity and make do with kerosene lanterns.
But Uganda’s efforts did not pay in the long run. The dry toilets soon turned into disease factories due to lack of maintenance and population pressure. While the law had recommended that the latrines were built 30 metres from the main house, shrinking land holdings forced people to have them too close to the residential quarters.
Overused and overflowing, these toilets emanate foul smell and contaminate the surface and groundwater. Instances of collapsing toilets and people falling into pits are common. Not surprisingly, many Ugandans are back to defecating in the open.
According to the World Bank, 98% of Ugandan population had access to toilets in the 1960s. It went down to 45% in the 1970s and then to 20% in the 1980s. As a result, diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery and schistosomiasis (a disease caused by parasitic worms) are the biggest killers among the poor.
Today, according to the World Health Organisation, only about 34% of the Ugandan population has access to hygienically constructed toilets. Even the broader criteria used by the Ugandan government do not claim toilet access for more than 64%.
A study in six slums of Kampala found that shared toilets were abandoned for a reason. Improper toilet use, constrained access, obscure and filthy walking paths to the toilets that became dangerous at night, lack of light in the cubicle, raised latrines sometimes up to two metres above the ground, coupled with the lack of cleaning and emptying the shared facilities, only made a bad situation worse.
Today, many residents use plastic bags, which they simply toss into open drains and rooftops. Open defecation gradually substituted use of the available sanitation facilities and “filthy latrines ended up having the same net effect as crude open defection,” the study concluded.
Bad sanitation costs Uganda USD 41 million. The solution, says the World Bank, lies in building a little over half a million healthy toilets — a modest challenge compared to India’s target to build 90 million by 2019. But Uganda learned the hard way that ensuring safe sanitation requires a lot more than just chasing numbers. India will do well not to repeat their mistakes.