India’s National Urban Sanitation Policy and its flagship programme, the Swachh Bharat Mission, strongly recommend mechanical technologies for safe faecal sludge management. But, how do septic tank cleaners live and work, and why are their practices not “safe”? An evening spent in observation of their work and in conversation with cleaners and truck drivers in Bengaluru aka Bangalore is recounted.
Decentralized technologies and city-based governance are being actively promoted for urban sanitation in low-income countries. At the same time, municipal agencies in developing countries have little technical or financial capacity for sanitation planning. This paper develops an approach to sanitation planning that leverages citizen engagement and fosters local capacities. It presents an empirical study from two small towns in India, where collaborations among the research team, local academics and students, and the municipal government, produced planning-oriented sanitary maps of each town. The maps were built upon a social and spatial understanding of the diverse sanitation practices that already exist, coupled with Google Earth and free GIS software. The ‘waste watersheds’ and ‘sanitation zones’ identified through the mapping process provide a basis on which sanitation interventions can be assessed and weighed, so that sustainable solutions can be prioritized. The paper identifies three features for system interventions: first, making local municipal government the locus of sanitation interventions; second, engaging community-based organizations and academic institutions to develop local capacity; and finally, recognizing the fragmented nature of cities by developing a socio-spatial approach to sanitation zoning.
Isha Ray’s contribution, the first of several essays in our “Just Environments” series, examines gender equality through the lens of access to basic sanitation. Moving beyond what the United Nations and others have proposed, Ray argues that in-home toilets are inadequate because they fail to account for those without homes, or those who are not home all day. Rather, if we are to make sanitation truly accessible, we must explicitly design and construct infrastructure that meets the needs of the most marginalized—including the low-income woman whose dignity and mobility rests on the presence of clean, safe facilities outside of the home.
November 19 is World Toilet Day. Enormous progress has been made in the global effort to provide safe and affordable toilets for the world’s poorest citizens since World Toilet Day was first declared in 2001. Significant strides have been made in “reinventing” toilet designs for low-income, water-short, unsewered urban zones; celebrities such as Bill Gates and Matt Damon have brought this once-taboo topic into the open; and the Prime Minister of India–the country with the highest number of people still practising open defecation–has publicly declared that his country needs toilets over temples.
Well over two billion people today lack access to basic sanitation facilities, according to the World Health Organization; about 760 million of them live in India. The goal of this Day is to make the global community aware of their right to safe and dignified sanitation and to support public action and public policy to bring this right closer to those who do not enjoy it today. On this World Toilet Day, we focus on the back-end of the sanitation chain, on those who clean out latrines where there is no flush or sewer to carry away the waste. When this work is done without mechanical equipment and without protective clothing, scooping out faeces from ‘dry’ latrines and overflowing pits, it is called “manual scavenging”.
It’s an ancient profession and India, which made the practice illegal in 1993, still has over one million such cleaners (the exact number is unknown, and declining). They service low-income urban households and railway tracks and army barracks; they come from the lowest strata of the Hindu caste system, and about 90 percent of them are women. Despite valiant civil society (and several governments) efforts to train them for other professions, breaking out of this denigrated caste-based profession remains very difficult. Many mehters live in the shadows of society, invisible yet reviled, taunted yet essential, trapped in an unconstitutional practice without viable alternatives.
In a real sense, 70 years after Indian independence, this is a community still waiting for its freedom. In this photo-essay, we explore the daily lives of the toilet-cleaners: their homes, their hopes, their work, and their determination to get their children out of it. If World Toilet Day is about expanding access to clean toilets, it must also be about those who have to clean the toilets.
This discussion paper reviews the extensive literature on sanitation to show that inadequate access to this basic service prevents the realization of a range of human rights and of gender equality. We recognize that “dignity” is a highly culture- and gender-specific term; we therefore argue that sanitation for all—sanitation that serves all genders equally—must be designed and planned explicitly for the unique needs of women and girls.
We cover sanitation design, planning and financing for hygienic defecation, and for relieving oneself during the day at work or school. These needs are sometimes euphemistically referred to as nature’s “long call” (defecation) and “short call” (urination); the absence of safe facilities for these needs disproportionately affects women and girls. In addition, women and adolescent girls menstruate, and they need safe sanitation services to manage, hygienically and with dignity, this “monthly call”. We review the findings of the small but rapidly growing literature on menstrual hygiene management, with emphasis on menstruation management and a girl’s right to education. Finally, we review the work and life conditions of those working the “back-end” of the sanitation system, such as manual scavengers and sanitation workers. The paper concludes that safe sanitation is a gateway service for dignity, health and gender equality. In particular, sanitation in public or shared spaces must become a priority-planning sector for sustainable development.
This paper was featured at an event on Emerging Issues in Gender and WASH held during the 60th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women in 2016.
Inadequate wastewater and fecal sludge treatment, disposal, and end use systems are arguably the greatest obstacles to achieving sustainable urban sanitation in unserved regions. Strategies for planning and implementing urban sanitation are continually evolving. Demand-driven sanitation with household and community participation is broadly thought to be the way forward. We are skeptical that more time and resources spent garnering household and community demand for sanitation will amount to the much-needed improvements in the treatment and end use components of sanitation systems. We propose shifting the incentives for sanitation from “front-end users” to “back-end users,” thereby leveraging demand for the products of sanitation (e.g., treated wastewater, fertilizer, alternative fuel) to motivate robust operation and maintenance of complete sanitation systems. Leveraging the resource value of wastewater and fecal sludge demands a reuse-oriented planning approach to sanitation, an example of which is the Design for Service approach presented in this commentary.
The benefits of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) are widely known but its recommendations remain thinly implemented. Designing wastewater treatment plants for reuse in irrigation is a particularly underutilized IWRM opportunity that could potentially increase agricultural yields, conserve surface water, offset chemical fertilizer demand, and reduce the costs of wastewater treatment by eliminating nutrient removal processes. This paper presents a novel planning model, consisting of a reuse-centric performance assessment and optimization model to help design wastewater treatment plants for reuse in agriculture. The performance assessment and optimization model are described, and their coupled application is demonstrated in the peri-urban district of Pixian, China. Based on the results of the performance assessment, two reuse scenarios are evaluated: wastewater to supplement business as usual (BAU) irrigation, and wastewater to replace BAU irrigation. The results indicate that wastewater supplementation could increase profits by $20 million (M) annually; alternatively, wastewater replacement could conserve 35 Mm3 of water in local rivers each year.
Sustainability assessments are an increasingly common tool for measuring progress towards sustainable development. Despite their popularity, sustainability assessments and the indicators that compose them are said to have had little impact on the policy arena. In this paper we discuss four attributes that we contend will improve the use of sustainability assessments to guide decision making: non-compartmentalization, site specificity, built-in guidance for target setting, and ability to measure active sustainability. We present a novel assessment tool for wastewater treatment infrastructure that illustrates these attributes. The assessment is composed of two-dimensional indicators we call “burden to capacity” ratios, that reveal and quantify the local value of resources embodied in wastewater and treatment byproducts, and the tradeoffs between designing systems for disposal versus reuse. We apply the sustainability assessment framework to an existing treatment plant in Chengdu, China and discuss the result