Sunday, November 17, 2013

My Article for World Toilet Day 2013: Sanitation Is Not About Toilets Alone

BLOG : Sanitation Is Not About Toilets Alone

World Toilet Day is approaching and we already see a lot of action, starting from the local to the global level, asking people to build and use toilets. It is commonly believed that the more the number of persons with toilets, the more the sanitised a habitation is.
This is not only a very narrow approach to sanitation but also leaves a lot of scope for the organisations responsible to ensure sanitation to shirk their other important duties that include management of various forms of wastes, including septage and garbage. Urban areas, which supposedly have more toilets than the rural areas, need to seriously ponder around ‘integrated sanitation’ rather than just toilets.
India should be ashamed of the sanitation situation prevailing in the country. The Census 2011 figures pointed out that half the households in the country do not have toilets as yet. Other independent estimates put the figure at as high as two thirds. Urban slums, in particular, have very limited or no access to sanitation services.
One in six urban Indians is a slum dweller and most of them do not have any sanitation facilities. What is important to note is that urban India is simply not capable of managing the wastes it generates. Conservative estimates suggest that over eighty per cent of municipal solid waste across five thousand plus towns (approximately 42 million tonnes per annum) is currently disposed of in a haphazard manner without following the rules of the land.
Urban Odisha, floating on wastes
Odisha is no different. Though the share of urban dwellers in the state’s population is still only about 16.68 per cent, the wastes these habitations generate are becoming a huge problem for rivers, water bodies, farm fields and the ecology at large. It’s not merely because we don’t have toilets, but also because we have failed miserably in managing sanitation. While the poor don’t have toilets, others are in need of proper drainage, garbage and sewerage management systems
A little more than 35% of urban households in the state do not have toilets, Census 2011 reveals. This is the second highest in the nation. It is estimated that at least one third of the urban people in the state defecates in the open. This, however, does not mean that the rest are sanitised households. Toilets connected to sewer lines would not constitute even 10 per cent of the total number of toilets in urban Odisha. Forty five per cent of households apparently have septic tanks.
Ranjan Panda
However, field visits to cities suggest that not even half of these are proper septic tanks. None of the municipalities and NACs in the state is sufficiently equipped to clean septic tanks. As such, the sludge cleaned is disposed of at just about any place that the vehicles find convenient. It could be the side of a road, surface water bodies, rivers, farm fields and so on. Urban waste has also started encroaching into the nearby rural areas.
Our policy planners and the educated urban population believe that ‘open defecation’ is a shame and mars the aesthetics of the city. However, they never question where the sludge from their toilets goes. Each city of the state still has manual scavengers. Surprisingly, that is still not considered a shame.
Sanitation also means clean rivers and water bodies
Besides open defecation on river banks and surface water bodies, drain and sewer water also pollutes our rivers and water bodies. In turn, they create unhygienic conditions for city dwellers and the local environment. This is a silent killer.
Consider the capital city, which does not have an adequate drainage system. Closed drains cover a 103 sq. km area running through a little over 37 km. The majority of the system consists of open and natural drains. All natural streams and waterways have been converted into drains. The city has no proper sewerage treatment plant. The collected sewage is treated in three oxidation ponds and three aerated lagoons at different locations. However, these systems are in a shambles and are mostly non-functional. They merely function as flow through systems. Even if they were functional, they could treat less than half the total sewage generated in the city.
Bhubaneswar at present generates more than 200 MLD of sewage per day and almost all of it finds its way into the Gangua Nullah, Daya River and Mahanadi.
Cuttack, the other major city, is infamous as the city of drains. The city generates about 172 MLD of sewage, most of which goes to pollute Mahanadi and Kathajodi rivers.
We conducted a citizen’s survey in Sambalpur city and found that untreated polluted water gets drained into Mahanadi through at least 14 points between Hirakud and Sambalpur which is about a 15 kilometre stretch. These drains bring in about 40 Million litres of sewage into the river, besides about 100 tonnes of solid waste that find their way to Mahanadi in different ways.
While about 40 per cent of the Sambalpur city population defecates in the open, at least 10 thousand people defecate on the bank of the river itself. This is a daily health disaster as about 30 thousand people take bath in the 50 odd ghats from Hirakud to Sambalpur. The situation is the same in almost all the cities of the state.
The time has come to look into sanitation beyond just toilets. Toilets are necessary; but more than that, we need responsible and accountable municipalities and governments that plan integrated sanitation systems.
* The author, popularly known as Water Man of Odisha, is a leading water expert of the nation. He convenes a network called ‘Water Initiatives Odisha’ and can be contacted at

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