Flush toilets supported by a managed sewage disposal system are available to the residents of developed countries around the world. However, close to 700 million people from underdeveloped regions, who live in urban environments, don’t have access to this basic necessity leading to pollution of water bodies and diseases within the population.
The rapid growth in major cities of the Third World has not kept pace with civic development. While affluent areas have access to basic civic services, many settlements housing the poorer sections of the population lack access to sanitation, causing preventable diseases and infections. Solutions to address these deficiencies are short-term in nature, leading to more serious problems such as pollution and epidemics.
The Indian Government had launched a major ‘Clean India’ drive in 2014 to eliminate the practice of open defecation and open sewers by October 2019. While the problem of open defecation has been controlled to a major extent, the campaign could have generated longer-lasting results with better implementation strategies instead of the added problem of environmental pollution it has created.
A case in point is Siddharth Nagar, an unauthorised settlement of about 650 migrant families in Mumbai, India. With no access to toilets, the residents resorted to open defecation, a term used to describe the practice of using the outdoors for the purpose instead of a managed, protected facility. Open defecation exposes people and the larger population to infectious diseases; additionally, there is a safety issue too with vulnerable sections exposed to potential attackers.
Following the Clean India campaign, the residents got together and constructed six makeshift toilets with the wastes let out into an adjacent stream. Subsequently, the residents requested the municipality to construct proper toilets for the settlement, with the approval granted after a long struggle.
Instead of permanent toilets, they were provided with a mobile toilet facility that was removed soon after the official inspection. Eventually, the residents received four portable toilets that soon became defunct when the sludge couldn’t be collected by desludging vehicles, and was directed straight into the stream. Today, the community has gone back to open defecation, continuing the cycle of pollution, water contamination, disease and poverty.
A similar campaign in China launched by Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2015 called the ‘Toilet Revolution’ primarily targeted the countryside with residents promised access to hygienic toilets. Open defecation is a major problem in the country despite its massive economic progress.
While the Toilet Revolution has greatly expanded public sewer systems, universal access to proper sanitation is still lacking, especially in the older, dilapidated neighbourhoods inhabited mostly by China's aging citizens, who continue the practice of traditional night pots and rely on communal waste collection stations.
Migrants from rural areas are also marginalised in urban China with unaffordable housing forcing them to live in unhygienic conditions without access to sanitation. Constantly derided by the more affluent sections of society for messing up the environment, many of these urban migrants have installed flush toilets that are not connected to municipal sewers – the waste is instead flushed directly into the street.
While the municipality is working towards modernising these neighbourhoods and formally connecting toilets to sewer lines, not all of the waste is taken to a waste treatment plant; instead, it’s allowed to flow into the nearest water body, polluting the environment.
Universal access to sanitation is a human right; however, governments must be equally committed to safeguarding the environment as well as the health of their citizens.