Globally, approximately 900 million people do not have access to water from improved sources and over 2.6 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation. March 22nd marked the fourth annual World Water Day hosted by UN Water. This year’s theme was “Water for Cities.” World Water Day is a global reminder that potable drinking water and basic sanitation facilities are significant preventative measures against water-related diseases. Diarrhea kills 1.6 million people annually; improved water supply can reduce this number by 20% while improved sanitation can reduce it by 37.5%.
According to a recent World Bank study, inadequate sanitation costs India 6.4% of its 2006 GDP or roughly US$60bn. India claims the title as the largest number of people in the world who defecate in the open with 665 million people out of the global total of 1.1 billion. In the country’s urban areas, more than 37% of human waste is not safely disposed of. In 2009, it was observed that 466,853 elementary schools lack toilet facilities.
Aside from the health and socio-economic consequences of India’s water woes, there is a geopolitical dimension as well. India’s population is projected to surpass that of China’s by the middle of the 21st century. Both India and China rely on major waterways coming from the Himalayan mountain range, one being the Brahmaputra that runs through Chinese-controlled Tibet and into the eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The Government of India is monitoring China’s plans to build a hydroelectric dam along the Brahmaputra waterway. Although China has reassured India that India’s water supply will not be affected, China does not officially recognize India’s sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh (the state is known as “Southern Tibet” on official Chinese maps).
India has committed to a 10-year program to make sure that no “untreated industrial effluent or urban sewage” is released into its main river, the Ganges, but further government measures must be taken by the country to combat current and future water woes. Minister of the Environment Jairam Ramesh states: “The reason why India must take environment seriously is because it is becoming a very serious public health concern. A public health concern not for the rich or for the middle classes, but it is becoming a public health concern for the poor.”
Ramesh continues to say: “Water quality is something that’s absolutely essential. And we need to address some of these issues in a much more systematic manner than we have.” While state and local governments may educate communities – with or without the assistance of NGO or private sector partners – technology may have its place in supplying possible solutions.
The company Eram Scientific Solutions has created India’s first e-Toilet called “Delight.” It is a 20 square foot unit with two doors: a sliding door at the front and a normal door in front of the toilet. A user deposits the coin entry charge and the sliding door opens, thereby activating the light and exhaust fan. The system automatically flushes as well, one of its hygienic safeguard features. Eram Director MS Vinod explains: “The human excreta is treated and it is reduced to a sand-like material, which will not have any bacteria and it is removed physically once in three months.” The e-Toilet includes a bio-membrane reactor, a nano-technology-aided device that immediately recycles used water and prepares it for future use. The cost of Eram’s e-Toilet is in the range of US$7,500 to US$19,000, where price depends on manufacturing materials and model prototype. Today, there are 16 units installed in Kerala and Uttar Pradesh.
The e-Toilet demonstrates an innovative, albeit expensive, way to address the concerns of sanitation access and disposal, as well as water safety. The “Delight” may not be the solution to India’s multitude of water woes, but it does address a few of the critical issues. Now, government and local communities need to take a cue from Eram: they need to work together to understand the needs of different urban areas and supply affordable, innovative solutions to promote good hygiene and strong health among India’s growing populations.
The opinions expressed on the Searchlight South Asia site are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Rockefeller Foundation.