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World Toilet Day 2021: What Is Sustainable Sanitation?

Safe and sustainable water, sanitation, and hygiene services can contribute to the mitigation and adaptation for climate change, say experts

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World Toilet Day 2021: What Is Sustainable Sanitation?
Through sustainable sanitation, wastewater and bio-solids from toilets can be used to produce green energy and fight carbon emissions responsible for climate change, say experts
Highlights
  • Ensuring people’s access to safe sanitation is a continuous process: Expert
  • People may slip back to open defecation in absence of water supply: Experts
  • Sustainable sanitation can help fight against climate change: Experts

New Delhi: In daily use, household sanitation systems produce dirty water from sinks, showers, and washing machines along with wastewater from toilets. According to UN Water, wastewater and sludge from toilets contain valuable water, nutrients and energy and sustainable sanitation systems can make productive use of this waste to safely boost agriculture and reduce and capture emissions for greener energy. On World Toilet Day which is observed on November 19 every year to raise awareness about access to safe sanitation, NDTV spoke with experts to learn about sustainable sanitation and how can toilets contribute in the fight against climate change.

Also Read: World Toilet Day: Sanitation Workers, The Essential Yet Neglected Workforce

According to the ENVIS Centre on Hygiene, Sanitation, Sewage Treatment Systems and Technology of the Government of India, as of June 2021, the country generated 72,368 million litres per day (mld) of sewage. Out of this total sludge produced daily, only 28 per cent (20,236 mld) is treated. The rest of the 72 per cent remains untreated, thus posing a serious threat to the ecosystem. Therefore, experts call for recognising the role of sustainable sanitation and the need to beyond the ‘flush and forget’ tendency.

All we know is that we flushed the toilets and the excreta was out of sight, now whether it has gone to the septic tank, went to the drain or river, what difference does it make to us? In many cities Sewer treatment plants or faecal sludge treatment plants are in the process of being built, and in cities where it is already built, it is insufficient, so the question arises whether we the general public are even aware of this issue, the environmental problems it causes, also do we want to understand and play a part in this? said Dr. Shishir Chandra, Program Coordinator, WaterAid India

While explaining sustainable sanitation Dr. Suresh Kumar Rohilla, Senior Director at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said,

In simple words, sustainable sanitation is the provision of safe toilets, hygiene and water that is affordable, equitable, accessible to all and does not harm the environment. Sustainable sanitation certainly reduces the pressure on the utilities which are struggling to clean the rivers and other water bodies because the waste would not be going through uncontrolled sources in the rivers and open lands, contaminating the sources of water and food systems of people, animals. So, with toilets in place, there will be controlled point of sources from where the sludge can be collected and treated.

Explaining further about sustainable sanitation, Dr. Chandra said that urban India has made significant strides towards safe sanitation under the government’s flagship Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM)–Urban. However, he added that delivering access to toilets or sewer connections is only a part of the solution and without adequate and timely desludging of septic tanks and treatment of faecal sludge and septage, it is dumped untreated in open fields and water bodies, exposing citizens to serious health and environmental hazards.

Anindita Mukherjee, Senior Researcher, Centre for Policy Research, in India, the government has been able to increase the use of toilets manifold which led to almost whole of the country becoming open defecation free. However, it is important to note that in absence of services like water supply, people may slip back to the old practices, she said.

Ensuring access to safe sanitation is a continuous process and not just limited to building of the toilet structures.

Also Read: World Toilet Day: The Need For Sustainable Sanitation And Impact Of Climate Change

How To Achieve Sustainable Sanitation?

According to Dr Chandra, with only 40 per cent of urban India connected to sewer networks and about 1,200 operational/under construction Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs), a majority of the toilets (60 per cent) rely on on-site sanitation systems. Dr Chandra highlighted some sustainable solutions existing and can be adopted easily.

Faecal Sludge & Septage Management (FSSM), according to Dr Chandra, prioritises human excreta management, a waste stream with the highest potential for spreading diseases. It is a low-cost and easily scalable sanitation solution that focuses on the safe collection, transportation, treatment, and reuse of human waste. As a result, FSSM promises a means to achieve adequate and inclusive sanitation for all in a time-bound manner, he said.

When it comes to Rural India, Twin Leach Pit Toilet technology is the easiest and cost-effective solution towards safe and sustainable sanitation and that has been adopted under the Swachh Bharat Mission at the pan India level. Similarly, Evapotranspiration toilet, Bio-toilet, Eco-San toilet are some of the examples that have been experimented at different parts of the country on the basis of geo-hydrology, topography and local cultural practices and received great results and response towards sustainable sanitation solutions, said Dr Chandra.

Apart from the toilet technologies sanitation is just not only equal to toilet construction, its beyond that. Grey and black water management, water logging issues, animal excreta management, different kind of wastes management issues we can easily see in our surroundings. To address surface water issues and ensuring sustainable sanitation, decentralize waste water treatment, waste stabilization ponds, constructed floating wetlands, planted gravel filters etc. are some of the examples that and tested at different part of the country and could be replicated at large level according to the situation and need. Apart from this biogas treatment plant, vermicomposting, waste segregation and management at different level are also some of the examples to ensure sustainable sanitation, said Dr Chandra.

Also Read: Building Toilets Doesn’t Mean Total Sanitation, There Are Many Goals India Needs To Meet, Says Expert From Centre For Science and Environment

What Can Individuals Do To Adopt Sustainable Sanitation Measures?

Ms Mukherjee asserted that the government has fared very well by providing subsidies under the Swachh Bharat Mission scheme. However, there is an immense lack of knowledge among people about sustainable options and so, in order to complete the construction quickly and to get subsidies faster, people build unsustainable structures, she stressed.

It important to communicate and make households aware to take informed decisions about the soil quality, the water level needed and what kind of better and sustainable toilets they can install. They must ensure that the collection and transportation of the fecal sludge from their house is done safely and that the collected waste is taken to a sewage treatment plant so that the treated waste water and bio-solid can be reused and recycled without creating risks for the humans and environment, Ms Mukherjee said.

According to experts, some of the actions that individuals can take to adopt sustainable sanitation measures are:

– Open defecation and urination still persist in rural and urban areas for different reasons. Every individual needs to understand the importance of toilets and needs to adopt the same and change their practice and behaviour.
– Individual households that are well-off can contribute towards safe sanitation by developing wastewater treatment systems at their household level
– Be eco-responsive and environmentally sensitive and should avoid dumping waste in water bodies or in open, stop encroaching water bodies by different means and purposes
– Make efforts to know about the correct structure and design of the septic tank, when to empty it, who is the concerned authority to contact to get the septic tank cleaned.
– Monitor that solid waste from the septic tank is disposed of properly, sent to a treatment plant and not put in the drain or open ground.
– Single built houses which do not have any drainage channels should have a soak pit system unless the local panchayat or municipality makes some other concrete arrangement.
– Efforts have to be made by every individual to avoid waterlogging, whether through pit or by planting trees that absorb water or by applying other environmentally friendly methods.

How Can Sustainable Sanitation Help Fight Climate Change?

Ms Mukherjee said that toilets not only play a key role in keeping people safe from a number of diseases but can also help fight climate change and build a sustainable future. According to Professor Srinivas Chary, Director, Energy, Environment, Urban Governance and Infrastructure Development, Administrative Staff College of India (ASCI), safe and sustainable water, sanitation, and hygiene services can contribute to the mitigation and adaptation for climate change. He said,

Water and used water management services can be energy-intensive for long-distance pumping and treatment and cause a high carbon footprint. Reducing water usage, water efficiency, and leakage control, and low water use for sanitation and hygiene practices, and nature-based used water treatment are some examples that can help reduce carbon intensity in water, sanitation and hygiene provision. Climate resilient water, sanitation and hygiene provision through better design, planning, and operations, that also help reduce carbon footprints, is essential for adaptation to climate change risks.

While talking about how climate change can impact access to sanitation, Professor Chary said stressed that climate change poses a huge threat to water security. This situation of water insecurity, in turn, can result in the non-availability of adequate and clean water, especially for the poor, for drinking, sanitation, and hygiene, he said. He added,

The cost of water may also increase during disasters, leading to inequitable access and limiting poor people’s health and safety. Resilience is the key. Toilets and the services providing water, sanitation and hygiene have to adopt strategies to adapt to climate change.

Also Read: Next Biggest Challenge For India Is To Sustain The ODF Tag, Says Experts

NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ populationindigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (WaterSanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity,  that is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollutionwaste managementplastic banmanual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.

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