Sanitation has remained an issue both in rural and urban India with many NGOs and government bodies trying to spread awareness and solutions to combat this rising problem. A challenging factor to achieving sustainable sanitation both in rural and urban India today is water. A misconception that even urban India believes in is that toilets, with proper flushing facility, have clean and hygienic sanitation system in place. Clogged or leaking sewer is a common sight. Further, sewage discharge from collection systems, pollute surface waters and seepage from sewers, septic tanks and toilets pollute groundwater. Conventional sanitation technologies based on flush toilets, sewers, treatment and discharge cannot solve these problems in urban areas lacking the necessary resources such as water, money and institutional capacity.
To clean clogged sewers, manual scavenging has been an age old practice in India. Though manual cleaning of sewer tanks has been banned by the government, at many places, a large sect of people manually unclog sewer lines using bare hands without any protective gears. Unclean toilet has also lead to open defecation, which again is cleaned up by scavengers in rural areas. This practice has resulted in many social evils, including increased school drop outs of children coming from the scavenging community. Ecological solution is the next best alternative.
A model initiative
The Navsarjan Trust in Gujarat has been working to eradicate manual scavenging practices since 1996. Apart from raising public awareness, unionizing manual scavengers and taking recourse to legal action, advocacy, primary education for children of the scavenging families and vocational education, it also has been working in collaboration with other partners such as SEACON and GTZ to develop ecological sanitation technology. Navsarjan has developed the Ecosan systems on the campus of the three boarding schools it runs and on the campus of Dalit Shakti Kendra which is a vocational training centre having residency of over 1000 students (two month residency) and equal or more visitors having a short stay annually.
Ecological Sanitation techniques available on the market include toilet designs ranging from low-flush- to dry urine-separating toilets that separate urine and faeces at source. Because these techniques reduce large quantities of black water, it reduces the need for pipelines that is regarded as one of the most expensive part of the conventional sewer system. Therefore, the collection techniques covered by Ecological Sanitation range from small-scale sewer systems to systems based on logistics, such as the collection by tankers and trucks.
The goal of sanitation is to protect public health by collecting and treating human waste. Different systems have been developed globally to accomplish this goal. These systems vary according to the methods used for human waste collection, storage, transportation, treatment and disposal. The type of sanitation system selected also determines the complexity and cost of construction, operation and maintenance. The Ecosan project at Navsarjan Dalit Shakti Kendra is a sustainable system designed inhouse. The toilet centre is attached with a bio gas plant. This started in April 2007. About 22 toilets are connected to the plant and 150 students use it daily. The biogas generated from this plant is used in the kitchen.
As part of the school sanitation system, the Navsarjan Trust has also introduced urine diversion dehydration toilet. This toilet complex has a total of eight toilets, four urinals, four washbasins and two laundry areas. Out of the eight, four are used for bathing and the other four as toilets. Pre-treated grey water is reused for gardening. Grey water collected from bathrooms, washbasins and a laundry area passes through a vertical flow filter filled with organic matter like saw dust, wood chips, dust, rice husk, straw, etc. The compost and urine are used as fertiliser and to amend the soil in the kitchen garden.
There are no cleaners to clean all these toilets. All users have to clean it after use. This way it also helps save water and energy. Students as well as staff are given a single bucket of water (12 litres) for bath. The girls get a quarter portion of water more due to their long hairs. Ten tubs of 20 litres each are found sufficient for 250 users to wash their dishes. A detailed dish washing procedure has been put up at the washing area. The earlier system at the Kendra consisted of underground sewage ending in large filthy pits, stinking and overflowing on the roads at various spots. The campus is now much drier and beautiful. The practice of cleaning after use requires a change in mindset. It necessitates constant education that is a continuous activity.
Initially at the Kendra, certain prejudices prevailed among students and the toilets were not kept clean. Hence during the process of inculcating the habit of clean toilets, the Kendra organised a morning breakfast session just outside the toilet doors. It was a powerful experience that resolved the issue. Today, the school children are the biggest ambassadors who uphold the Ecosan systems with dignity. They identified with the system and have even named two small puppies as ECO and SAN. The children were instrumental in correcting the prejudices of their teachers towards Ecosan. These systems are not regarded merely as a second-rate solution for poor people. Ecosan principle may be applied across a range of socio-economic conditions.
The excellent fertiliser value of human waste has been well established. On an average, human waste provides sufficient plant nutrients in the forms of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium to grow the 230kg of crops. About 65-90% of the nutrients are found in urine. The use of human waste as fertiliser, in most countries, has been implemented only to a very limited extent. They have been flushed out into the rivers resulting growth of algae and lack of oxygen in the aquatic resources. Pathogenic microorganisms pollute the rivers and leading to spread of virus/bacteria. It’s thus better to create a closed system of utilising human waste as fertilisers.