Ecosan’s promising future

Human excrements can serve as a source of energy – and if 2.5 billion people worldwide are to gain access to hygienic toilets, affordable and environment-friendly solutions are urgently needed. In India there are some encouraging initiatives.

[ By Frank Kürschner-Pelkmann ]

last contributed to D+C/E+Z in winter 2013/2014 as freelance journalist who specialises in international water issues and environmental affairs.

The sanitation conditions in India are appalling. More than 500 million people have no access to toilets. Nonetheless, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, the minister for rural development, sees progress. In November the “New Post India” newspaper quoted him as saying: “In 1961 just one percent of people in India used a toilet, five years ago it was 22 % and today it is 50 %.” According to the minister, India’s central government earmarked $ 255 million for sanitation projects in 2007 – 43 % more than in the previous year: “We have launched a comprehensive sanitation campaign and hope that by the year 2012 people will no longer have to defecate in the open.”
The overall situation is still rife with problems, but some initiatives give grounds for hope. For instance, A. Mariappan, an engineer with the Tamil Nadu Water and Drainage Department, mobilised the women of the village of Thumbaipatti to help themselves. Thanks to their efforts, all 563 households in the village now have simple latrines.

The outcome is that drinking water is no longer contaminated with sewage. All the inhabitants of the village, the children in particular, are living more healthily. The overall situation has improved, and boosted the social standing of women. The villagers are proud of the fact that the latrines are attracting many interested visitors, and that other villages in the region are already following their example. Last year Thumbaipatti received an award from the Indian President for having adequate, hygienically safe toilets in all households and schools in the village.

Bindeshwar Pathak has been involved in different aspects of India’s sanitation problems for 30 years. He is the founder of Sulabh International, which has overseen the construction of more than 7,000 public and 1.2 million private toilets. This initiative received special praise from the UNDP in its Human Development Report 2006.

For Pathak, from an upper-class Brahmin family, it is not just a matter of affordable and environmentally-compatible toilets, of health and hygiene. His declared mission is also to restore the dignity of the Dalits, or “untouchables”.

Members of this excluded minority collect human excrement, often with their bare hands, and carry it in a pan on their head to the nearest dump. This is how it’s been done for thousands of years. An estimated half million people, mainly women, still earn their living in this way, day after day. “These people have rendered society a great service – without them, many would have become sick and died,” says Pathak. “And how has society thanked them? It has declared them untouchable.”

To emphasise the relevance of the topic, Pathak has set up the International Museum of Toilets in Delhi. It contains a wealth of relevant information, including displays of more than 300 toilets from 60 countries.
Cost-effective and environmentally sound

In Bindeshwar Pathak’s opinion, however, India should not take typical Western toilets as its example. “They are too expensive to build and they use large amounts of water. This is not a feasible option for the poor.” It makes more sense to build environmental-friendly lavatories that do not need any connection to a sewer system, but rather turn waste into fertiliser and biogas. The technical term for this approach is “ecosan”, an abbreviation for ecological sanitation.

Pathak acknowledges that the idea takes some getting used to. Modern facilities may be odourless, but not everyone likes the thought of cooking with gas from the toilet. However, this is how many people in India and other Asian countries could, at a single stroke, solve their sanitation and at least part of their energy problems.

Sunita Narain, director of the independent “Centre for Science and Environment” (CSE) in Delhi travelled to Stockholm in the late 1990s. She saw a side of the Swedish capital that normal tourists don’t even think about. “Instead of visiting luxurious restaurants, we visited toilets in out-of-the-way areas of the city.”

Even then, Swedes already had lavatories which used very little water and at the same time supplied useful fertiliser for agriculture. Narain saw systems which separated urine from solid waste, and became aware that “the flush system and corresponding waste water treatment are not the solution, they are part of the environmental problem. Just think of the vast amount of clean water which is used to dispose of small amounts of human waste.”

According to her calculations, the average family produces about 250 litres of excrement each year. And it takes 150,000 litres of drinking water to flush it away. “Flush and forget” systems are not going to solve India’s sanitation problems, Narain says. The CSE is one of India’s institutions which is endeavouring to find viable alternatives to Western WCs.

Sewerage disasters

Another argument in favour of alternatives is India’s massive wastewater problem. Scores of local authorities discharge raw sewage into rivers, which have become so contaminated that they pose a serious health hazard. Narain goes so far as to claim that “our rivers and our children are dying.”

According to Pathak, only 232 of the more than 5,000 urban centres in India have sewer systems – and they don’t work when there’s a power failure. The situation is not good even in Delhi, the capital city. Most wastewater pipes are silted up, and only 15 % of the main sewers are in working order.

Delhi’s 15 sewage treatment plants are not enough. More than four fifths of the effluent flows untreated into the Yamuna River, and from there into the Ganges. Industrial effluent goes the same way, and the result is that even India’s holy rivers are severely polluted.

Last year thousands of Hindu holy men threatened to boycott the traditional “Kumbh Mela” festival in Allahabad, claiming the water was too polluted for them to immerse themselves in the Ganges. At the last minute, the authorities channelled clean water from upstream reservoirs into the river. The holy men accepted the solution and entered the water, as did millions of other believers – this time.

The German Association for Technical Cooperation (GTZ), in partnership with local organisations, has been pioneering “ecosan” in India for some years now. It is important to comply with specific regional and social conditions. Navsarjan Trust, one of the partners, is fighting against the custom of Dalits’ cleaning human faeces from dry toilets with their bare hands.

Since 2006 this trust fund has been supporting the installation of toilets in which faeces and urine are separated and used as compost and fertiliser. A primary school in Raika, Gujarat, won the first prize in a school science fair last year: their toilet system uses greywater to water the garden.

Similar concepts are also possible in urban slums, as can be seen from the “Eco-friendly Public Toilet Centre” in Bangalore. Sanitation in the slum area of Rajendra Nagar has improved since 2001. At the same time compost, fertiliser and biogas are being extracted – and the compost is being used to cultivate bananas. The system works well, because the local population is supportive of it.

The many successful alternative toilet projects could remedy India’s sanitation predicament within just a few years – if the concepts were implemented across the entire country. To do so, however, many of the responsible politicians would have to break away from the “flush and forget” approach of the so-called “modern” centralised sanitary system.

It is important to overcome cultural reservations against the use of faeces and urine for agricultural purposes. Critics accuse the government of neglecting the social and cultural dimensions of the issue. They claim that many people in rural areas would defecate in the open even if they had a toilet.

Admittedly there is good reason for their assertion. “Building the toilets was the easy part,” explained a public health professional from the state of Chattisgarh. According to her, many people had a mental block against using the latrines. “In many houses the space provided for toilets was used for storage.”

It was necessary, first of all, to convince the women of the advantages of the latrines – by arguing that they would save the time they usually spend going into the fields, for instance. However, in the end it was the positive impact on health which persuaded them to use the toilets.

But the toilet revolution has begun, and the alternatives to the flush toilet are convincing. The bureaucrats will also eventually realise that their attempt to construct toilets, waste water pipes and sewage treatment plants throughout the country is destined to fail. If all the Indian people are to have access to toilets by 2012, ecosan is the only realistic approach.

What applies to India, applies to many other developing countries too. Today 2.6 billion people worldwide – almost half of them children – do not have access to toilets. The United Nations has nominated 2008 the “International Year of Sanitation”.

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