A lack of basic sanitation is a major problem for some of the world’s poorest countries. According to the World Health Organization, 2.4 billion individuals lack access to basic toilet facilities, impacting the health, wellbeing and mortality rates of a third of the world’s population.
With the second biggest population in the world, India is at the forefront of these challenges. Some 70% of households in India don’t have access to toilets, more than 72% of rural people relieve themselves in the open, and of the 1 billion people in the world who have no toilet, India accounts for nearly 600m.
The cost, both financial and on human life is high. Women leaving their rural homes after dark to go the toilet in private comes with its inherent dangers, and the broader topic of public health and sanitation has a drastic impact on the health and wellbeing of the population.
62 million Indian children are stunted, and while malnutrition is the primary cause of death, poor sanitation elevates the risk of bacterial infection, resulting in diarrhea that causes up to 50% of all child malnourishment. Stunting and other forms of malnutrition are thought to be responsible for nearly half of all child deaths globally.
The cost on human life is a major concern, but it’s also uneconomical. Poor sanitation loses India 6.45 of its GDP, and highlights the substantial investment needed for improving India’s sanitation.
The challenges of improving sanitation
One of the challenges with conventional sanitation that’s favoured by most governments is the upfront capital often required to expand any existing infrastructure. Piping, construction, sewers and the eventual treatment of any waste is expensive. In rural communities, access to resources like water is also not always readily available.
But the advancement of providing safe sanitation isn’t solely limited to economics and resources. Progress has also been hampered by social norms that accept or even encourage open defecation. India’s staunch social caste system still prohibits toilet construction in some areas, particularly in rural locations, and the Hindu text “Laws of Manu” encourages defecation in the open in order to avoid “ritual impurity”.
Social hierarchy is another consideration, as traditionally it was only the lowest members of society who cleared human waste. As a result, there still remains a preference for defecating in the open, even if people have access to toilets at home or within the local community.
However there have been strides to improve India’s sanitation, and innovative entrepreneurs free from the ties of government bureaucracy, are attempting to tackle the issue by providing safe, environmental and affordable sanitation for those most in need.
Svadha’s primary focus is on sanitation in the rural market, focusing on bringing a level of standardisation and acceptance through local entrepreneurship.
Their concept revolves around offering domestic toilets for homes, with sustainable waste management solutions that are sold through local entrepreneurs. These individuals are also trained to follow up with post-sale management and repairs.
The approach of the business lies in building a good network of local entrepreneurs who can provide a “one-stop” shop for consumers who are looking to purchase and maintain their sanitation product, without having to visit a variety of small vendors with unreliable stock.
Ultimately, by demonstrating that there’s profit and money to be made within the industry, historic attitudes linking sanitation and social class can be challenged by local entrepreneurs at a local level.
According to Forbes, India’s rural sanitation market can be estimated to be worth approximately $25 billion, with $10 to $14 billion as a result of demand for rural toilets alone. The potential for profit it is hoped, can start to steer India’s social caste system in a new direction.
Installing and operating sewage and wastewater treatment plants is expensive, and the conventional wastewater treatment uses so much energy that it isn’t always environmentally friendly. As a result, many regions in the developing world are looking to new, innovative solutions to help address the problem.
In response, dry or low-water sanitation have been gaining attention. Many places throughout India places simply don’t have enough water, or some have too much, which complicates water treatment processes due to Monsoon floods and contamination from overflows.
Loowatt have developed a relatively radical response, by creating a toilet that doesn’t use water at all, delivering high-standard sanitation without the need for electricity or a water-based infrastructure.
The unit is lined with a biodegradable bag that’s then stored in a compartment underneath the toilet. The stored waste cartridges can then be processed into liquid fertilizer, compost and electricity, reversing the cost of disposal and turning waste treatment into an opportunity for profit.
The toilet can also provide a source of biogas for cooking, creating an exciting opportunity to offset capital costs with energy production.
With help from a $1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Toilet Challenge, the British-made Loowatt is offering a cleaner option to unhygienic latrines or open defecation.
But the presence of toilets alone isn’t enough to improve the situation. Emptying a toilet in any other country doesn’t carry the same social stigma that it does in India, and more affordable options that need to be emptied manually can prevent regular maintenance and cleanliness; and ultimately the “open air” option quickly becomes a more attractive alternative.
In 2014 Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a national ‘Clean India’ campaign, and they have an ingenious ways of tackling the problem of toilet usage. The campaign works with city leaders to ensure that cities grow in a child-friendly way, often involving children in consultations about how to design public toilets so that they’re safe and user-friendly for everyone.
The result is that children now feel part of the solution, and groups of children will team up to alert people defecating out in the open that public toilets are the smarter and safer option.
While the government and entrepreneurs can make gigantic leaps in providing sanitation facilities, changing behaviours is still seen as part of the problem, and the solution. There’s still much to be done, my ultimately through the support of government, charities and the private sector, the aim is to provide an opportunity for everyone to live a healthy, productive life.
This post was written by Jo Greene of VR Sani-Co. An established family business providing a range of sanitary bins, washroom services and hygiene solutions for over 20 years.