What if sanitation is not just about the kit? If sanitation solutions cannot be mass-produced at will, like a box of software, what, then, is the alternative?
Nearly half the world’s population lacks access to a toilet, so the desire for scale is understandable. By some accounts, eighty percent of the world’s illnesses can be traced to untreated fecal matter, and the health consequences of open defection are especially dire for poor people forced to live in densely packed urban communities. Nobody disputes that something major must be done.
Given the scale of the challenge, large-scale solutions that will improve life for large numbers of people sound like good news. India’s government, in this spirit, has proclaimed that ‘toilets are more important than temples’ and is committed
to build five million toilets by September – or one every second.
If a lack of equipment were an obstacle, big breakthroughs would be near. The Gates Foundation, for example, having invested tens of millions of dollars in an ambitious attempt to re-invent the toilet, has now embarked on a similar effort to re-invent the sewage treatment plant. The Omniprocessor, an off-grid system developed for the foundation by Janicki Bioenergy, converts sludge into drinking water, electricity, and ash. The system features sensors and webcams so that engineers may monitor an installation remotely, diagnose any problems that come up, and communicate with technical support teams on the ground.
The technical prowess shown in these projects is admirable, but a tricky question has arisen: What if sanitation does not lend itself to omni solutions, and it’s not just about the kit? If sanitation solutions cannot be mass-produced at will, like a box of software, what, then, is the alternative?
Quicksand’s Ayush Chauhan and Babitha George, who have spent four years grappling with a toilet project called Sammaan, have learned the hard way that sanitation does not lend itself to mass-producable solutions.
At last month’s Unbox Festival, in India, they told me that, because every context is different, so too will be every successful solution. The toilet as artefact, however well-designed, is a relatively small part of the story. Equally important threads in the narrative concern so-called ‘soft’ factors such as social conditions, cultural norms, business models, and governance.
For an installation to be sustainable over the long term, Chauhan explained, it needs to be ‘owned’ by the local community – and for this to happen, an effective framework for their participation needs to be put in place at the start. This foundational element is missing from the Indian government’s new-toilet-every-second campaign.
Toilets also also needs to be affordable, as well as functional, if local people are to use them two or three times a day. Pay-per-use is an obstacle to many poor people, Chauhan explained – but not all of them; different business models work in different contexts. Free public provision works sometimes, but many government supplied toilets, already built, have fallen into disuse. The use of microfinance to fund toilet business start-ups also works in some areas – but not all; in other contexts, a different mix of rewards and incentives have been found to work better.
For a community-led project to put the right mix of technical, social and economic components together, different local government departments – including water, public health, infrastructure, and education – need to be co-ordinated, too; but right now, local government silos seldom even talk to each other.
Simply telling officials to be supportive doesn’t work, so fostering their empathy and awareness is another priority. That’s a tough task by itself.
For Kris de Decker, toilets are a second-order question. The priority, for him, is a social business organization of the kind that served China and Japan for centuries before the development of artificial fertilizer transformed sanitation systems for the worse.
Although they were large and densely populated even by today’s standards, pre-modern cities were served quite well without toilets at all. City-wide economic infrastructures, often based on boats and canals, collected waste, processed and stored it to kill microorganisms, and used it as fertilizer, with great efficiency. Because human byproducts had economic value as a key input to sustainable farming, Chinese cities were a lot healthier than their contemporary European ones, too.
No-toilet sanitation solutions are not on the table in India right now, to put it mildly – but there are numerous efforts to turn human waste into viable social businesses.
Above: Bangalore lacks a city-wide sewerage network , but these ‘honey-sucker’ trucks have emerged as a self-service alternative; private tankers empty holding and septic tanks and the faecal sludge is used productively by farmers in the fringes of the city. The honey-sucker service has emerged without any form of financial or technical assistance, but operates outside the legal framework.
For S Vishwanath, a thirty-year veteran of water stewardship projects in Bangalore, the key success factor – is that sanitation projects should be ‘hyper-local’ and led by local citizens – and a small but growing number of success stories confirms that lesson.
Near Bangalore, for example, a community of 1,700 households in eight villages eliminated open defecation in a project that was led by a respected local woman and suppported by outside experts. For the eighteen months since the locally-owned plan was launched, the community’s infant mortality rate has been zero.
Local leadership is also key to the restoration of lakes and rivers. Bangalore, we heard from Vishwanath, was once called the city of a thousand lakes – but, thanks to the ravages of urbanization, sewage dumping, and encroachment, barely 34 remain in their original healthy state. Now, pioneering groups called Friends of the Lakes are coming together to in towns and cities across India and beyond, to help revive and protect rivers, lakes and watersheds.
A hacking ethic inspires an inspiring anti-trash movement called The Ugly Indian. Started by design students in Bangalore, it’s all about cleaning up India’s sidewalks, bus stops, and illegal rubbish dumps. Small groups take unilateral action to clean up a stretch of sidewalk, for example, and then they talk to everyone involved in that street: the garbage collectors, shop-owners, municipal cleaning staff, office workers who dump trash on the street, and so on.
Above: Thanks to an Ugly Indian group, a former rubbish dump is now an urban park.
Each group uses the visible result of their initial action to start conversations – “look how clean our street could be” – and ask people who are part of the problem to imagine themselves as co-owners of a clean street, not a filthy one.
Ugly Indians don’t blame their fellow citizens, or politicians, or ‘the system’: They act first, and then they talk – to everyone. They make it “our” problem, not “your” problem.
This combination of social smarts with systems thinking is remarkable. The Ugly Indian movement has spread to a dozen Indian cities, and a similar project has started in Karachi.
In another ultra-local project – in Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh – the focus is on the capability of local authorities to work with local communities. An EU-supported programme is helping 1,500 households from poorly served slums work together with city administrators, elected officials, and managers of various technical services, and some NGOs. Together, they are developing the plan for decentralised sanitation and water reuse in which low-cost sewerage systems are being implemented at a community level.
Suppose, as a thought experiment – and as experience seems to indicate – that the optimal size for a social change action is two to five thousand people – such as the group of villagers in Bangalore that Vishwanath mentioned; or the number of people who might have a shared interest in cleaning up an urban street, as practiced by The Ugly Indian movement.
In that case, for every 100 million people in need, 50,000 community stewards need to be identifed, trained, and supported – and on an ongoing basis. That sounds an especially tall order when one considers that Ashoka, which has a long-standing commitment to the development of local leaders, has been able to nurture 3,000 fellows since 1981.
But in other walks of life than sanitation, local mobilisations on a large scale have cropped up throughout history. There must surely be some potential in adapting their models to a waste and water stewardship context.
Religious orders such as the Benedictines, or the Jesuits, have grown huge congregations over centuries using a ProAm model in which priests and missionaries would recruit lay people around a shared belied system. In content terms, features of their agenda could be obnoxious – but their success in recruiting whole populations to a new social practice was phenomenal.
The growth model of religions has been updated to huge effect in recent times by the evangelical christian movement; at least forty million Americans participate at a local level today in a religiously based small groups. Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, for example, is comprised of thousands of church cells in which groups of six or seven people who meet in one another’s homes during the week to worship and pray.
As Malcom Gladwell recounted in a celebrated profile, Warren’s small groups ‘focus on practical applications of spirituality…not on abstract knowledge, nor even on ideas for the sake of ideas themselves’. His innovation was to improve and supercharge the recruitment, training and support of thousands of volunteer leaders that emerged from these small groups. His website, pastors.com, supports this fast-growing learning network of local leaders.
Local churches, for Warren, are ‘the biggest distribution network in the world. Millions of them are spread out around the world. Even in villages which lack a school, a grocery store, or a fire department, they have a church’.
For S Vishwanath, water stewardship in general, and sanitation projects in particular, are neither a spiritual nor a practical matter on their own. We need both. The prosaic, day-to-day management of waste and water needs to be organised at a hyper-local level; otherwise it will not be adaptive to the unique properties of each social and ecological context. At the same time, water stewardship requires the mobilisation of immense cultural commitment; for that, the spiritual dimension of water needs to be rediscovered, too.