World Toilet Summit: Sanitation Beyond Septic Tanks and Sewers

NEW DELHI - To meet one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and halve the number of people without basic sanitation by 2015, the world must make a radical shift away from septic tanks and sewers, say experts and activists.

Gathering in New Delhi for the just concluded four-day World Toilet Summit (WTS)-2007, 400 sanitation experts from 44 countries agreed that they needed to work harder on designing toilets that suited the developing world and looked beyond 'disposal oriented' western systems.

''We don't need just toilets but toilet systems," said scientist and former president of India A.P.J. Abdul Kalam at the summit that was jointly organised by the Singapore-based World Toilet Organisation (WTO) and India's Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, with support from the Indian government. ''Toilet technologies need to be oriented towards ruggedness and reliability and minimum water usage.''

"Like the septic tank, the sewer system was first used in London in 1850 in response to thousands of cholera deaths. New York got sewers in 1860 and Calcutta in 1870. One hundred and thirty-seven years later, only 232 out of India's over 5,000 urban centres have partial flush-to-sewer connectivity. Clearly conventional systems are no answer to the world's sanitation woes," said Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh which has developed the twin-pit sanitation technology.

''You cannot achieve the MDGs with sewers and septic tanks,'' Pathak told IPS. ''Sewers need expensive infrastructure, high maintenance and large quantities of water to be effective.''

Septic tanks, though cheaper than sewers, need regular maintenance and their contents can seep into ground water leading to infections and pollution, said Jack Sim, who heads the WTO.

The West should stop exporting and imposing its sanitation solutions like sewers to the developing world as they are often found to be unsuitable and unsustainable, said Carol McCreary of the American Restrooms Association.

The need is to shift from the conventional 'disposal-oriented' sanitation paradigm to new 'reuse-oriented' models, said Arne R. Panesar of the ECOSAN programme that works in recycling-oriented wastewater management and sanitation systems in Germany.

While the WTS-2007 showcased many technologies that could help developing countries where toilets are needed the most, not all were suitable because of local cultures and practices.

For example African Sanitation's 'AfriSan' toilet is a waterless, dry composting system pioneered in the slums of South Africa. It uses small amounts of peat moss and lets solar energy turn waste into odourless manure that is collected in a tray and emptied once a week, said AfriSan's Lukas Oosthuizen.

But Oosthuizen quickly discovered that the model was unsuitable for use in India. ''People here are washers and not wipers, and so we need to redesign so that water can be used,'' he said.

Another solution from Africa was the 'Vacu-tug', a small portable machine that empties out dry toilet pits that is revolutionising slum sanitation in Kenya. ''It has already cut down the infamous flying toilets (whereby people use a plastic bag and then fling it out of the window) of Nairobi,'' said Prof. Edward K Kairu, who heads ANEW, a trans-African water and sanitation forum.

But one of the best technologies reamins the two-pit system developed by Pathak and his Sulabh three decades ago which has transformed the lives of millions of users and scavengers in this country and abroad.

The U.N.-Habitat has recognised Sulabh's cost-effective and appropriate sanitation system as a 'Global Urban Best Practice'. The twin-pit system uses 1.5-2 litres of water per use in a flush toilet that is connected to two pits that allows recharging of the soil and composting, and a close-loop public toilet system attached to a bio-gas digester.

In fact, this is the only sanitation technology that meets the seven conditions for a sanitary latrine laid down by the World Health Organisation. These stipulate that a sanitary latrine should not contaminate surface soil, ground water or surface water. Excreta should not be accessible to flies or animals. There should be no handling of fresh excreta, or when this is unavoidable, kept to a bare minimum. There should be no odour or unsightliness and the methods used should be simple and inexpensive in construction and operation. "This is an on-site sanitation technology that can be implemented anywhere," Pathak said.

Sulabh has built more than a million such toilets in India and has recently completed five pay-and-use public toilet complexes in the Afghan capital Kabul. "We were expecting some 300 users per day to make these toilets self-sustaining. But more than 5,000 people use these toilets everyday, yielding profits and employment right from start," said Pathak.

Portable plastic toilets jointly developed by an Indian and a British firm are being manufactured in India to provide sanitation during the upcoming Beijing Olympics. "The toilet can be fixed and unfixed in an hour and at least a hundred people can use the stink-free toilet before it needs to be vacuum cleaned," said Bob Macrae, international sales director for Britain's Poly John. "It can be used at mega religious festivals like the Kumbh Mela in India, natural disasters, sports events and even the urban slums of India,'' added Prashant Trivedi, of Sintex, the Indian partner.

New responsive technologies are a good signal, said Sushmita Shekhar, member, U.N, Taskforce on Water and Sanitation. ''However, these technologies have to reach the people. Until the beneficiary sees the good in proper sanitation, he will not ask for it. And till he himself demands, there will be little acceptance for the technology," she said.

In fact the need is also to take sanitation technology from being subsidy-driven, which it so far is, and make it market-driven, said Jon Lane of the Geneva-based Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council.

"Every person uses a toilet several times a day. And 2.6 billion people worldwide still need one. So we have to see it as a blue-chip industry," said Panesar of Ecosan.

Awareness is the key, said Sim. World Toilet Summits, organised annually in different parts of the world by his organisation, are a branding exercise aimed at taking the subject of sanitation and toilets out of its taboos. "Starting with the International Year of Sanitation 2008, we have to market appropriate, eco-sustainable and user-friendly sanitation to make it viable.''

Globally 2.6 billion people, or one in three persons, lack access to proper sanitation, says the UNICEF/WHO mid-term review report on MDGs. More than half of them live in India and China. Africa and Latin America are the other regions that are lagging behind. The Neglected Goal: A Toilet Revolution

(c) 2007 Inter Press Service

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