Identify water for 'Clean India'

‘Mission Swachh Bharat’ or ‘Clean India,’ to be launched on October 2, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi is envisaged to be a landmark policy decision of the Narendra Modi government. Through this, the prime minister is set to embark on an ambitious multi-million dollar sanitation project to clean up 1,000 Indian towns. A special feature of the project is about building two lakh toilets for women in 5,000 villages.

The role models for the project are cities like Amsterdam, Singapore, Freiburg (Germany) and Kobe (Japan). The project will be implemented on a P4 (people-public sector-private-sector partnership) model. The project endeavors to bring about a paradigm shift in the global perception, providing sanitation and sewerage facilities to over 36 million households in the country in the first phase.

In the developed world, the flush toilet is the only enormous and exorbitant engineering feat of urban sanitation system. Multitudes of people who tend to ‘flush and forget’ on a regular basis are using millions of gallons of drinking water. Each individual dumps up to 22 litres of drinkable water every day with one three-to six-litre flush at a time. But the problem doesn't stop there. What follows the ‘forget’ part of the toilet experience is the long and costly process of sanitising the water that was clean before one answered nature’s call.

Imminent water crisis
There are indications that the world is heading towards a serious water crisis which will affect all of us, particularly the poor. The poor suffer most from the decrease in fresh water resources, and bear the brunt of water-related diseases and a damaged environment. This water crisis is in part a direct result of the failure of the current sanitation paradigm. Sewered sanitation, established in the era of European urbanisation in the 1870s, has the status of a widely accepted solution. There is little discussion about its core problems, which result in health and environmental issues around the world.

The ‘Mission Swachh Bharat’ is born out of the apparition that open defecation releases germs into the environment that make growing and developing babies and children ill and early-life health has large and lasting effects on adult achievement and productivity. But  unfortunately the health hazards through consumption of faecal contaminated drinking water will have far more detrimental consequences compared to germs that may spread from open defecation. Any long term planning for large scale urban sanitation in India should keep in mind the future water crisis. A fundamental shift is needed in how we think about our waste and its disposal.

The human body is designed to separate solids from liquid waste and we should follow suit. By separating faecal matter from urine at the source in what’s called a “urine diversion toilet,” a wider ecological system of waste disposal is possible. By adopting such toilets, solids can be composted for fertiliser and harvested for methane gas. Urine can be used to produce phosphorous and nitrogen and clean, drinkable water. Dry composting toilet or urine separation toilet forestall groundwater pollution paving way for sustainable innovative solution for agricultural purposes.

The fact that our current sanitary systems are, for the most part, directly connected to the water cycle requires that both the sanitation and water crises be considered, before we can begin trying to de-couple them. The estimated mortality rate as a result of illnesses caused by contaminated drinking water and poor sanitation and hygiene in developing countries is approximately 2.2 million people per year, most of them children under the age of five. More than a billion people do not have access to safe drinking water.

Eighty per cent of all diseases and 25 per cent of all deaths in developing countries are caused by polluted water. Worldwide, over 200 million people were infected with schistosomiasis and intestinal helminths, of which 20 million suffered serious illness. In India, the idea of every person having their own car brought to the public eye vivid images of a social and environmental catastrophe. Today, the idea of every family having access to a flush toilet evokes images of a much greater disaster, as this would both sharply increase drinking water consumption, and lead to increased water pollution and health hazards.

In our conventional toilets, drinking water is misused to transport human excreta into the water cycle, causing environmental damage and hygienic hazards. If we continue to promote these technologies in order to build a clean India, the overall result could be disastrous as the hygienic situation of our waters would be further deteriorated. The problems with conventional sanitation are fundamental, and a radically different approach is needed.

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