The sanitation challenge

Positive examples of sustainable rural sanitation have come from Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim.

Published - September 12, 2014 05:44 pm IST

The U.N. set the Millennium Development Goals or the MDG between 2000 and 2015. Goals 4 and 7 was to halve the number of people without access to improved water or sanitation. The goal for water is likely to be reached by the deadline but sadly not for sanitation. Unfortunately, in the quest to provide access to facilities for people, the sustainability component was missed. This miss will hopefully be rectified when the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) come into place as the next phase of the MDGs. As estimated by UNICEF and WHO, the burden of bad sanitation for India is the death of over 386,600 children due to water-borne diseases particularly diarrhoea, a crippling physical and mental stunting called enteropathy which disables children from absorbing nutrition, and finally the loss to the economy amounting to 6.50 per cent of the GDP in 2012 as per an estimate of the Water and Sanitation Programme of the World Bank.

What is sustainable water supply and sanitation? A global network of individuals and institutions which have come together under the banner of the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance ( tries to answer this in the following manner. Sustainable sanitation is defined as that which is universally accessible, is used by all, that which lasts and that where the waste products are safely disposed, if not productively used.

In the rural context sustainable sanitation would mean not only the construction of toilets but their continued and correct usage; after the pits are full an adequate and safe mechanism for their emptying and potentially the reuse of the waste material as fertilizer after it has been safely sanitized. It should also be remembered that a whole community approach is needed to make the environment entirely open defecation-free, with not a single violator; else the benefits of sanitation will not accrue.

Positive examples of sustainable rural sanitation have come from Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim in particular and in the case of Sikkim the entire State has been declared as open defecation-free. This is an example to emulate for other States particularly when more than 600 million people in India do not use a toilet.

In the urban context it would mean not only the construction of sewage lines and sewage treatment plants but their ability to convey all sewage without leaking to the STP which would then treat it to meet standards as prescribed. Ideally in a sustainable sanitation paradigm, there would be recovery of energy through bio-gas, recovery of nutrients in the waste-water stream such as nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium and finally the recovery and reuse of the water component from waste-water. The landscape of urban India is littered with leaking sewage lines, uncollected waste-water and dysfunctional sewage treatment plants and is nowhere near the sustainability desired. On-plot sanitation systems too would be important in many urban areas and may be relevant for a long time given the high investment needs for underground lines.

Chennai leads the way with four of its Sewage Treatment Plants generating enough energy through bio-gas and electricity so as to provide for about 80% of the plants’ running requirement for energy. Unfortunately both the rural and urban examples are few and far between, registering as a mere blip on the requirement radar. India will do well to invite SuSanA to set up an Indian chapter which will provide the ideas, examples, experience, knowledge and a platform to bring together the community of people and institutions working on sanitation to understand, discuss and implement sustainable sanitation in India at a scale and reach necessary for the problem.

The Prime Minister has called for a clean India and a clean Ganga. Both can be achieved only when there is sustainable sanitation for all in India.

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