Are toilets at home the only way?

World Toilet Day, that falls on November 19, is a grim reminder that 4.5 billion people in the world do not have access to a toilet. In real terms, it is a stinking reflection that 61% of the current global population of 7.3 billion defecates in the open. With an additional 1.3 billion to join the global human pool by 2030, and a significant majority of it in the developing world, the number of people taking nature's call in the open is likely to be 5.5 billion.  

Assuming that a household toilet is used by a family of five, almost a billion toilets would need to be constructed for realising the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of providing everyone with a toilet by the year 2030.

This would mean some 7.6 million toilets to be constructed each year, or a little over 2,10,000 toilets per day. And, the toilet building spree is unlikely to conclude anytime thereafter because an additional billion people will be ready with their individual demand for a toilet by 2050.  

Need it be said that till the population stabilises, there cannot be any let down on toilet building across the world? India has shown how it is indeed possible to get past the first hurdle of clearing the backlog.

By building 'a toilet a second,' the country is surging ahead to make itself open-defecation free (ODF) by October 2019, by which time it would have built anywhere close to a 100 million household toilets. By doing so, it would erase the global burden of demand for household toilets by as much as 20%.  

The trouble is that, at least in India, the access to a toilet does not guarantee its usage for a variety of socio-cultural reasons. As a result, one out of five Indians is not as excited to use the toilet that Queen Elizabeth I was thrilled to use when its inventor, Sir John Harrington, had presented the first modern flushable toilet in 1596. Although Harington had installed a working model at the Richmond Palace, the device has gone through several iterations since then.  

From a high of 20 litres to less than 5 litres per flush, the toilet has gone through significant changes in water consumption to suit both flush toilets as well as pit latrines. Unless backed by appropriate sewage disposal and treatment systems, urban toilets will cause pollution of rivers and lakes.

Only 20% of more than 30,000 million litres of urban sewage in the country gets any form of treatment before it is discharged. Most rivers and lakes across the country bear the brunt of such untreated discharge.  

On the other extreme, pit latrines in rural areas have the potential to contaminate groundwater sources. In a rush to meet the target of making villages ODF, the choice of location, the soil type and distance from groundwater source often gets overlooked.

While over 50 million pit-toilets have already been built in the last three years under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the impact on groundwater and related health aspects will only unfold in the years to come.

Exploring options

But why are we stuck to toilet as the only option? It is not just the squatting slab but an entire system that must function efficiently to make the toilet an effective tool for human excreta treatment and disposal. Human excreta, if handled properly, may not be a big problem. Left on its own, it engages millions of microbes in fertilising the soil with organic carbon. The moment it comes in contact with water, which a toilet facilitates, the trouble starts.  

Unlike in the temperate countries, toilets in the tropical countries need to be viewed in light of a vast majority of poor thriving on less than $2 a day who may not be able to afford a toilet.

Although aesthetically undesirable and socially demeaning, easing in public has nonetheless been widely accepted. Because public empathy towards open squatting has remained secular, never has it triggered any class or caste strife in the matter of appropriating public space for conducting private action.  

With its extensive paraphernalia, the toilet makes an unreasonable demand on  water, and amplifies the fresh water crisis too. A climate-smart alternative to 'toilet' may rest in recognising 'informal squatter islands' as permanent municipal spaces where waste will get managed in a way that produces subjectivity than shame.

The municipalities' role will then be limited to managing such islands, upturning the soil periodically, and replacing the carbon-rich fertile soil for a premium.

(The writer researches on water and sanitation issues)

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