The UN declared 2008 the "International Year of Sanitation". The aim was to chalk out a strategy on how to improve sanitation, as more than 2 billion people around the world have no access to proper toilets. India has the largest number of people without sanitation facilities. Though some progress has been made towards achieving "total sanitation" in India, the country's water shortage poses new challenges.
A man demonstrating an "ecosan" toilet in Thergaon, Maharashtra
About 600 million people, half of the Indian population, have no access to proper sanitation. The majority of them live in rural areas. It normally means they have to go for open defecation in the fields - or along the railway tracks, for example. Since the government launched its "Total Sanitation Campaign" a few years ago, things have begun to change, though. Prakash Kumar, a consultant and sanitation expert with UNICEF, says:
"In 1984, only 8% of the rural population in India had access to sanitation. Now it has grown to 32% in 2008. But the Total Sanitation Campaign in fact effectively started from 2000. And the major achievement has been done in the last eight years."
A success story
At this pace, India is likely to achieve ‘total sanitation’ by 2015. The current campaign differs from previous ones in that it focuses on raising people's awareness and involves the local population.
Shobha Yadav, a landless labourer lives in a village in the western state of Maharashtra. Her family constructed a toilet two years ago.
„When it rained, it used to be really difficult to go out", she remembers. "Hands and feet used to get dirty in the mud. Now we don’t have these problems any more. The little children, too, use the toilet. My mother-in-law found it a little strange at first. She said: This gives me a pain in the belly! I was really angry with her. And she used to sit angrily on the toilet. But now she likes it," Shobha laughs.
Is ecological sanitation an alternative?
But Prakash Kumar hints at another problem -- the shortage of water in large parts of India: „Sometimes I tell my colleagues at UNICEF and the government of India it is a blessing in disguise that 600 million people are using open defecation", he says. "See the consequences: By 2015, close to 1.2 billion people in India start to use conventional toilets. All these conventional toilets need water. From where will the water come? So we need to start promoting ecological sanitation at this stage! Otherwise it will take another campaign to convert these water-flush systems to some sort of water efficient or dry toilet system."
There are different models of sustainable sanitation. They are based on collecting urine and faeces and re-using them locally, either as manure in agriculture or for producing biogas. Other countries have progressed further than India in this field. China has already installed more than a million sustainable or "ecosan" toilets.
Hampered by taboos
In India, on the other hand, there are only small initiatives so far. Taboos and psychological inhibitions against the use of human faeces are widespread. Dr. Subhas Vithal Mapuskar introduced ecosan toilets for biogas production in a village near Pune some decades ago. He remembers:
"Initially, they started using that gas for getting hot water. Once they started using it for hot water, their first impression about the dirtiness of that gas disappeared. And then, gradually, they themselves didn’t know when that hot water bucket remained aside and the pressure cooker got on the gas burner."
It is possible to change minds, but it takes time. The Indian government has only just started to promote alternative toilets.