Lest we forget, a minor detail is water

The pendulum has swung towards the sanitation extreme. Water is the forgotten piece of the sanitation, one without which the great Indian leap into the toilet can possibly come undone. Indians wash up after defecating and most also wash their hands with ash, mud or soap. At a conservative estimate open defecation needs about a litre of water for ablutions. Toilet defecation triples that amount to three litres if one adds water needed to flush and keep the toilet clean.

Figures in % Piped on premises Other improved Other unimproved Surface water
1990 7 57 32 4
2000 10 66 21 3
2012 14 77 8 1
Source: UNICEF-WHO Joint Monitoring Programme

While defecating in the open may not entail an additional burden on water providers, i.e., women, using toilets probably will. Women have to fetch water from the nearest source, usually a handpump, common tap (other improved), well, spring (other unimproved) or pond (see table). With the exception of the privileged 14 per cent who get water in their houses, the rest have to fetch from distances varying from 25m to 250m. By another argument, the government considers a habitation ‘covered’ if people have a water point that provides 40 litres per capita per day (lpcd) within a distance of 100m. Of this, 10 litres is the amount calculated for ablutions. The new norms that have just come into force stipulate 55 lpcd.

In practical terms the situation is different. The access, yield, quality, etc., are calculated when the water source is installed. The agency putting in the handpump or piped water supply scheme finds a source, determines how much water it will produce and the amount needed by people who will use it. The water is tested after the installation is complete. There is no follow up to check if the scheme actually works. Government norms specify a handpump for 150 people, or 30 households. This has create a substantial category of habitations called partly covered. Government statistics put this at 21.7 per cent of the total number of 1.7 million habitations. Another 12.2 per cent do not have potable quality water, taking the total who officially do not have enough or safe water to 33.9 per cent.

A World Bank study indicated for handpumps, the difference between design and delivery of water from handpumps was about 10 per cent. In the case of piped water schemes 30 per cent households did not get water daily. The average coping cost (on storage, repair of private sources and time spent in getting water) was Rs 81 per month. That was for 40 lpcd when water for ablutions was provisioned at 5 litres. If this is raised to 55 lpcd, the failure rate will also rise.

To use a toilet daily, a family of five will need an additional 15 litres of water daily, or 3 lpcd. It may not sound like much till one considers how this water is fetched. If outside the premises, as it in 86 per cent of households, it entails at least an additional pot or bucket weighting 16-17 kilos. This will have to be carried anywhere between 25 and 250 metres (distance from source to house). In other words, it is a 7.5 per cent increase in water consumption per person per day. It is also an equal increase in the burden on water providers, mostly women.

The solution since Jairam Ramesh’s time as Minister for Rural Development has been to push for piped water to be delivered on premises. We have already seen the failure rate for this approach is very high. It is likely to be exacerbated by several other factors. This will undermine piped water supply as well as the Swacch Bharat Mission since the lack of water is a cause for non-use of toilets.

The other factors that bring piped water schemes down are their high running costs, a lack of trained people to run them, a lack of a revenue model, drying up of sources and poor planning. All these are critical factors. While Panchayats are mandated to manage these schemes, most are made by Public Health Engineering (or equivalent) departments in states. The costs of maintenance are high such as may be incurred if a pump breaks down or the chlorination unit runs out of chlorine. Electricity supply is erratic in most of rural India. Even though people are willing to pay for an assured safe supply of water, revenue models have seldom been worked out or put in place.

Then there is the source. About 80 per cent of drinking water comes from underground. Over the past three decades, groundwater has become increasingly scarce with the rapid expansion of groundwater-fed agriculture. Dug wells and handpumps that use shallow aquifers are the first to go followed by tubewells for drinking water. Of the 7928 blocks in the country, the Central Groundwater Board has classified about 14 per cent as over-exploited or dark zones; in both cases further groundwater exploitation is not possible. Added to the scarcity is the quality aspect. Natural and anthropogenic pollutants affect a significant percentage of groundwater. These include salinity, iron, fluoride, arsenic, nitrates, industrial pollutants and untreated domestic sewage.

Add to this the problem of unregulated toilet construction. There are norms for locating toilets at a safe distance from water sources. The minimum distance is 10 m (in silt) to 500 m (in gravel). A visit to any village where toilets have been made shows these are never followed. In fact, toilet makers have no idea of this requirement. Putting down a concentration of toilets without safeguarding water sources is a disaster waiting to happen.

Water, then, is going to be a major bottleneck in ensuring a Swacch Bharat. There are a few solutions to this.

One is to build toilets that do not need water for flushing but safely separate excreta from human beings. These also separate the solids from the liquids; the latter composts to manure in about eight months while urine can be used straight away with some dilution. These toilets can now be made for around Rs 12,000, the amount of subsidy the government provides under the new sanitation campaign.

The second is to ensure faecal containment. Bangladesh has done this successfully. This is the bare minimum that can be done to remove open defecation. Essentially people dig shallow pits, put two slats of wood across them and use them till full and cover them up. In India’s hot climate the excreta will decompose within a few weeks. The problem is this system is not viable during the monsoons or in wet areas or where the water table is high.

The third is to provide group toilets linked to a biogas plant. Several examples of this model exist in Maharashtra, Bengal and Gujarat. Mixed with animal manure, human excreta generates biogas that is used for cooking. The slurry is further vermi-composted into organic manure to be used in fields. There are issues with acceptability but these have also been successfully overcome. This option needs a large capital investment and may not be suitable for the poor. It also does not significantly reduce water use.

To succeed, the sanitation campaign has to be executed as part of a larger water cycle. The purpose is to improve health but without ensuring adequacy of water for ablutions, and safety of water from pollution, the cycle will not be complete. The toilets may well go in but Swacch Bharat will become another failed mission.

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