How our cities’ sanitation problem is damaging health
The phrase “flush and forget” is used extensively to describe how the majority of us want our sanitation experience to be. Unfortunately, this has resulted in a dire emergency, because many city planners have also believed that once people are using safe sanitation in their homes, the problem is resolved. In fact, not having a proper fecal sludge management system is more the norm than the exception in all of India’s cities—and so today we are in a state of near national emergency on this issue. Based on the data culled by the Centre for Science and Environment through a survey of close to 75 cities, between 70-90% of our human waste goes untreated into the environment.
Why should we care about fecal sludge management? Fecal sludge is any human excreta and water mixture that bears disease-carrying bacteria and pathogens that need to be safely treated before disposal into the environment. And fecal sludge management is the city system that safely collects, transports and treats fecal sludge and septage from pit latrines, septic tanks or other on-site sanitation systems. In India, this service is often not provided at all, or not done well—resulting in gross pollution of our surface and groundwater, widespread disease through untreated disposal of pathogen-laden sludge and high costs of combating water-borne diseases to individual households. Having a sound fecal sludge management system is of utmost importance in densely populated areas, where most residents are often not connected to conventional sewer networks.
The other issue is that the sludge is most often collected by unorganized private service providers who use vacuum pumps or other types of pumps loaded onto trucks/vehicles that can enter high-density areas. The collected and untreated material is usually dumped in the nearest water body or open area, sometimes even in farmer fields—all of which is hazardous to safe and healthy living. These providers are neither incentivised nor regulated to take the sludge to a safe location for disposal. The responsibility of providing effective fecal sludge management lies with local governments, water authorities, water utilities, in partnership with formal or informal private service providers. For efficacious citywide programs, fecal sludge should be collected on a scheduled route, and not as an on-demand /call-for-service basis, in order for de-sludging to be a sustainable business for service providers.
As viable alternatives to conventional treatment systems, non-networked and innovative treatment systems and technologies should be used by cities to start work now on addressing this emergency. These include constructed wetlands, anaerobic digestion and waste stabilization ponds, as well as co-treatment in sewage treatment plants, as available and feasible. Together, these solutions result in effective fecal sludge management treatment that is practicable both from an economic and operations stand point.
Government and citizens have to act together to solve for the problem. There is a strong push by the national government to provide technical assistance to states and cities to design and implement effective fecal sludge management systems for their citizens. But without the active cooperation of citizens, private service providers, city planners and administration there can be no effective and sustainable fecal sludge management. This demands strong collaboration among all stakeholders. Fecal sludge management is not only an engineering or infrastructure solution, but a city system that needs the resolve of each partner to make the city fecal sludge free.
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Citizens’ participation entails regular desludging of their septic tanks, ensuring that no untreated sludge leaks into their immediate environment, and paying for regular service. On the other hand, service providers should ensure quality services to citizens by not dumping untreated waste into the environment, ensuring high maintenance of their vehicles, ensuring that service personnel are adequately protected from contamination and that there are no leakages during desludging operations. Municipalities need to create facilities for safe treatment and disposal, set up the right incentives and disincentives for adhering to safe disposal, and create the right market structures to encourage private sector players to expand and sustain operations for both de-sludging and treatment.
As states and cities start work on developing city-wide fecal sludge management systems, the ecosystem of stakeholders need to join this conversation. There is an urgent need for all of us to act now. We are losing an unacceptable number of children—by some accounts, approximately 1,000 a day—to poor sanitation. Effective fecal sludge management is a critical step in saving these lives.
Madhu Krishna is country lead, water, sanitation and hygiene, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation