The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, March 2, 2003
Lead Article

Towards eco-friendly sanitation
Shamya Dasgupta

WHEN a few months ago, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee announced the proposal to link the country’s big rivers, this once again put the water crisis on the national agenda. Clearly, water resources are stretched beyond limits in India. Groundwater levels in almost all states have dipped, many rivers have dried up or are heavily polluted with waste. Residential areas in several cities go without water supply for days.

In New Delhi, water management itself has become a huge challenge for the authorities. Usha Raghupathi, Associate Professor (Research) at the National Institute of Urban Affairs, offers telling figures. "Only 20 per cent of all the water supplied to our homes is consumed (drinking, cooking, washing, gardening)," she says. The rest is "discharged" which, in technical terms, means "not consumed" but not necessarily "wasted". Alarmingly, out of the 30 per cent of the total water used in sanitation, almost 75 per cent goes waste.

This scenario can be avoided. If ecological sanitation or EcoSan, an alternative worldview to sanitation, is adopted. The idea behind EcoSan is simple, a holistic approach toward prudent sanitation. EcoSan is urgently required in cities like New Delhi, where massive investment, maintenance and operational costs are involved and a major share of the water is channelled for sanitation purposes. It is also helpful in nourishing the soil for agricultural use.

How does EcoSan work? This is a step ahead of environmental sanitation, which kept the surroundings clean by working on wastewater treatment and disposal, vector control and other disease-prevention measures. EcoSan does all these, but is based on the principle of recycling. EcoSan attempts complete recovery of all nutrients from faeces, urine, and grey-water (kitchen and bath water).


EcoSan expert Paul Calvert from Kerala identifies three basic benefits of the experiment: "EcoSan prevents diseases by removing pathogen-rich excreta from the immediate environment. Besides, it does not contaminate groundwater or use up scarce water resources. It also creates a valuable resource that can be recycled back into the environment. Over time, if stored properly, excreta metamorphoses from a harmful product into a productive asset."

Since 1995, Calvert has set up EcoSan toilets in numerous homes in rural Kerala. This model consists of a slab constructed over two vaults. The slab has a hole over each vault for the faeces to drop in and a funnel for the urine to collect. Before use, each hole is covered with straw to facilitate decomposition. After six months, the decomposed faeces is collected and used as soil fertiliser. But Calvert is now working on a better, more urban user-friendly model.

In Scandinavian countries and Germany, the EcoSan model has not become popular with either rural or urban people. As the faeces is incinerated inside the closet it leaves a stink. But people like Calvert feel that what EcoSan needs is a technological breakthrough. "And lots of attention and money. The government and corporates should be part of this. The common perception is that EcoSan is unhygienic and primitive. Most who think like this have no idea how EcoSan works. No one is trying to improve on it," says Calvert.

Environmentalist Himanshu Thakkar feels that EcoSan will work once the people are educated about the gravity of the situation. He mentions how people finally accepted the need of using CNG (Compressed Natural Gas). "When people realised the harm other fuels caused, they switched to CNG. Similarly, for water, the biggest hurdle is the mindset of our people. If people pay more for the water they use or waste, the situation will change. People will then realise the magnitude of the problem. The government should invest in research to improve the existing EcoSan toilets."

The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a New Delhi-based NGO, has also been advocating EcoSan as a replacement for the flush toilet. According to CSE Director Sunita Narain, "We need to go back to the drawing board to reinvent a green toilet. If necessary, to go back to our past and find technological innovations that are sustainable and equitable. So that every Indian can have access to sanitation and have clean water to drink. It is the poor that really suffer as a result of the indiscriminate use of flush systems by the affluent few."

In EcoSan there is an alternative to the water crisis. Propagators of EcoSan are fond of saying: "Where there was once a toilet, now there is a fruit-bearing tree." We just need to try them out to stop the further loss of precious water. WFS