Countries in Global South must move the issue of sanitation beyond the idea of toilets

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World Toilet Day by Sudarsan PattnaikVerified account @sudarsansand
World Toilet Day by Sudarsan PattnaikVerified account @sudarsansand
Azadi Ka Amrit Mahoutsav

CSE organises Africa-South Asia online conclave on faecal sludge management in rural areas; experts from Tanzania, Uganda, Malaysia, Bangladesh and India speak at the event

Countries in Global South must move the issue of sanitation beyond the idea of toilets to that of effective management of faecal sludge, say experts at CSE’s online global conclave

 In 2019, the Government of India had announced that every rural household in the country had access to a toilet – thanks to the government’s Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission) launched in 2014; the Mission claims to have built over 100 million toilets in 0.6 million villages across the country. “The next, and decisive, phase in this battle for safe sanitation is now upon us – that of moving the debate and the issue beyond the idea of toilets, to that of safely managing the enormous amounts of faecal sludge that rural India will produce from these millions of toilets. Because if we do not do that, we would be looking at a public health crisis of unmanageable proportions. Besides the obvious connection to health and environment, sanitation is also critical for that sense of dignity that we must give to every human being,” said Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), at a global online conclave here yesterday. The Africa-South Asia online conclave on Faecal Sludge Management in Rural Areas was organised by CSE, and it kicked off a 10-day training course on the same subject.

Some of the other experts who spoke at the webinar included Amour Seleman, senior environmental health officer, Water and Sanitation Section, Ministry of Health, Community Development, Gender, Elderly and Children, Tanzania; Engineer Olwemy Lamu, assistant commissioner, Planning and Development, Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Department, Ministry of Water and Environment, Uganda; Sujoy Majumdar, water sanitation and hygiene specialist, UNICEF-India; Dorai Narayana, international FSM consultant, Malaysia; Abdullah Al-Muyeed, chief operating officer, CWIS-FSM Support Cell, Department of Public Health Engineering, Bangladesh; and Sushmita Sengupta, programme manager, rural water and sanitation programme, CSE.

Speaking at the conclave, Sengupta said: “A huge proportion of the populations in Africa and South Asia – what is called the Global South — live in villages. The existing practices of managing faecal sludge in many areas of these regions – dumping in open fields or water bodies or burying in pits – are extremely unsanitary and can trigger a public health disaster. Effective faecal sludge management – treating excreta completely before any disposal or reuse — is the real need of the hour.”

Majumdar pointed out that single pit toilet is the preeminent technology in use in rural India, which necessitates retrofitting – but retrofitting is not an easy solution. He rooted for an “urban-rural convergence within a well-defined regulatory framework, which could be arrived at through a district-wide approach to rural sanitation”.

Recounting the Ugandan experience, Lamu urged for a “National Sanitation Master Plan” for Uganda, which loses US $177 million every year due to poor and inadequate sanitation. The pan-Africa statistics that Lamu presented were equally telling: 19 per cent of Africa practices open defecation, and there are 115 deaths every hour due to excreta-related diseases – a direct result of poor sanitation. The continent also loses 1-2.5 per cent of its GDP because of this. Seleman, from Tanzania, agreed that an institutional framework for managing faecal sludge was what his country needed as well.

Bangladesh, according to Abdullah Al-Muyeed, has crossed a big milestone in 2021 with the launch of its National Strategy for Water Supply and Sanitation. Al-Muyeed did not think open defecation was that big a problem in his country, though the sharing of toilets is a common practice because of paucity of land.

Malaysia’s Dorai Narayana offered a different perspective: 75 per cent of Malaysia’s people live in cities, and the country has made big strides in sanitation management. Good governance, involvement of the private sector, and selection of appropriate technologies have helped. “What has not worked,” said Narayana, “is the ‘big bang’ approach that things will change on day one, especially when there is no systematic preparation of the ground for bringing about the change.”  

What does CSE recommend?

There is a huge scope for reuse of treated faecal sludge and wastewater in the agriculture and aquaculture sectors, as well as for non-potable uses like flushing, said Sengupta. CSE recommended a four-fold pathway:

  • Strengthening of legal and institutional structures for the implementation of faecal sludge management
  • Keeping the focus on awareness and capacity building
  • Making available technological options for safe treatment of faecal sludge, along with reuse options of the treated sludge
  • Making toilets functional by connecting them with water.

Speaking to conclude the webinar, Narain said: “The Global South offers a wealth of guidance and experience on this issue. What needs to be seen now is how implementation is happening, where are the barriers, and how can we scale up our efforts. Affordable and sustainable sanitation – that is the challenge.”

Pratyusha Mukherjee
Pratyusha Mukherjee

Reported by Ms. Pratyusha Mukherjee, a Senior Journalist working for BBC and other media outlets, also a special contributor to IBG News. In her illustrated career she has covered many major events and achieved International Media Award for reporting. 

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