By Prarthana Mitra
It is baffling to think that open defecation is still a reality in India—a nation gearing up for a hyperloop, bullet trains, and spending millions on the tall statues. According to UNICEF estimates, India accounts for 90% of the South Asian population and 59% of the global population without access to safe sanitation.
The problem emerges from and leads to several public health, social and economic issues. Every year, for instance, diarrhoea causes 1,17,285 cases of infant mortality in India and even if the child survives the bout, problems of malnutrition, stunted growth, lowered immunity to pneumonia and other viral infections persist. While the lack of sanitation and hygiene reflects ostentatiously on health, the lack of privacy in open defecation also endangers the dignity of women and security of children who are compelled to step out of their homes at odd hours to defecate in the open. It further cripples national development by decelerating productivity, savings and investment, literacy and lifespan.
Armed with the belief that rapid expansion of new, off-gridsanitation products and systems is the only way to guarantee safe sanitation, the Reinvented Toilet Expo in Beijing on November 6 witnessed participation from some 20 toilet solution providers from across the world, who demonstrated how harmful pathogens can be eliminated and converted into clean water and fertilizer using technology. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation joined global innovators, development banks, private-sector players and lawmakers from several developing Asian and African nations, with an aim to adopt and accelerate disruptive sanitation technologies across the world in the next decade.
SATO: A unique solution to sewage disposal
One notable approach showcased the world’s first pathogen-killing reinvented toilets and small-scale waste treatment plants, known as omni-processors. As part of their drive to provide safe sanitation for 100 million people globally by 2020, Japan’s LIXIL group announced the smart and affordable toilet solution for India’s rural and semi-urban communities, which constitute the world’s largest populace (and half of the country’s population) practicing open defecation.
Priyanka Tanwar, Head of Public Affairs (Asia Pacific) of LIXIL, spoke to Qrius about SATO, a first of its kind technology that aims to impact millions of people around the world by offering an alternative to open defecation. “SATO positions itself at the cusp of technology innovation and social entrepreneurship and, therefore, is has been recognized as a harbinger of change in the field of Indian rural sanitation,” she said, adding that the group has aligned with India’s Swachh Bharat Mission and UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6 to unify all sectors in the reinvention effort.
What are the stumbling blocks at the grassroots level?
India faces two major challenges in terms of providing safe sanitation—waste generation and its management, and the lack of access to a basic sanitation facility like a safe and clean toilet. Sometimes the residence lacks the infrastructure to house a toilet; often the toilet space is used for storage or as stables. Enclosed spaces reek of odours sooner than open fields, Tanwar said, which is why they need seamless connection to the sewers and regular maintenance. Often, that is not the case which pushes people to defecate in the open. Add to this, the unavailability of electricity and water, and the aversion to public (shared) toilets.
Tanwar also said that there is a general lack of knowledge about technology; for instance, people fear that their toilet pits will fill up if all family members use it every day. Besides, they are also unaware of the benefits of using toilets. There are some social taboos that prevent construction of toilets inside the house, or male and female members of a family from using the same toilet.
How SATO addresses some of these issues
Without cost-effective alternatives to sewers and waste-treatment facilities, urbanisation and population growth will add to the burden.
“Toilets are being reinvented to be waterless, chemical-less, with a provision to recover waste or ‘Toilet Resource’, and are often not connected to centralised, sewer waste treatment systems,” Tanwar told Qrius, adding, “With the introduction of a low-cost and smart product, LIXIL has bridged affordability and quality to overcome unique design challenges that hinder sustainable use of toilets in India.”
The futuristic toilet not only requires less than 500 ml of water per flush thus helping conserve 80% of the water; it also features a self-sealing trapdoor to keep out carriers of diseases, and seal in unpleasant odours. It further eliminates clogging and is safe to operate and use. With the help of sensitisation programmes, community engagement activities and implementation partners like NGOs and community leaders, SATO aims to encourage toilet usage across India.
In March this year, SATO in partnership with non-profit Samarthan, organised a skill-enhancement training workshop for 150 women masons in Ashta, a village in Madhya Pradesh. Such activities are aimed at increasing the demand for toilets and creating a community that understands the correct process of installation of toilets so that technical failures do not breed mistrust among people.
Sustainability and sustainable impact
According to the UNICEF, each family in an ODF (Open Defecation Free) village in India saves Rs. 50,000 p.a. because of avoided medical costs, time saving and value of life. A reinvention of the sanitation system—the most essential of conveniences—can save a half million lives and deliver $200 billion-plus in savings, Bill Gates said in his plenary speech at the expo last week.
By providing a reliable, hygienic and an affordable toilet solution, SATO has been successful in encouraging over 35,000 families in rural Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Odisha and Maharashtra to avail of enclosed and safe toilets. Closer home, Shelter Associates’ ‘One Home One Toilet’ initiative has facilitated more than 45,000 household toilets (over 57% households) across slums in Pune, Maharashtra, since the launch of Swachh Bharat Campaign in 2014.
Founded by social entrepreneur and architect Pratima Joshi, SA hopes to elevate slums to housing societies for the poor, with basic amenities in place. The OHOT model is a three-step community-centric and data-driven approach to ensuring safe sanitation. Using spatial data, SA collaborated with local governing bodies to create awareness and demand, mobilising communities in building their own toilets.
These efforts are expected to have cross-cutting effects on all aspects of sustainability because sanitation is more than building and operating toilets—it includes diverse aspects such as toilet fittings and repairs, human waste management, smart-tech for sanitation, data collection and management.
With World Toilet Day around the corner, such comprehensive solutions aim to utilise technology in improving the standard of sanitation and hygiene, taking into account several social determinants like low-income availability, water scarcity, and non-sewered geographies. The journey will be challenging, but worth taking if it leads to better public health, increased labour efficiency, safer and cleaner environment and an overall positive impact on the socio-economic landscape.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.