This is a plea for continuing the practice of open defecation (OD). During a time with a toilet-building frenzy and a larger media frenzy espousing toilet use and also touting results, this message is likely to completely ignored or receive a deluge of criticism as great as India’s sewage flows. But this message must be said.
The natural act performed openly for millions of years by all mammals on the planet provides several benefits. Lets us objectively go thru them and deal with our biases later. The first benefit of eliminating while squatting outside is that urine and fecal matter are separated. Mixing them together creates a fouler fermenting mix — called ammonia toxicity in scientific circles — a mix that manual scavengers are only too familiar with. When separated in the open, urine disappears instantly into the earth. The solid part, which actually is about 90% water, dries out in the open, as water seeps out slowly and some of it evaporates. This process, called dewatering, takes up a lot of energy, space, and time in a treatment plant, but happens naturally in open nature. The stuff loses its smell within hours. After a day, the dry residue can be swept easily and, as humanure, is useful. OD can mean the end of manual scavenging.
The second OD benefit relates to health. The human body has two intestines that combined are over 8m long. They are long narrow tubes, moist and dark, with trillions of bacteria residing in diverse colonies in them. Our fecal matter contains millions of representatives of all the different bacterial colonies. Putting them underground along with water gives them a long extension of life. Especially if it is in long pipes (the intestines of society?). Placing fecal matter in the open exposes these anaerobic bacteria to oxygen and sunlight and deprives them of water. It is fatal to them. Observations can lead to the conclusion that bacteria in an open pile of shit die within several hours. The same matter placed in a septic tank gives weeks and months of life to harmful bacterial cultures.
In the largest study of its kind, Michigan State University researchers sampled 64 in rivers in Michigan for human fecal bacteria. Their conclusion, in 2015, destroys the notion that septic tanks prevent fecal bacteria from seeping into rivers and lakes.
“All along, we have presumed that on-site wastewater disposal systems, such as septic tanks, were working,” said Professor Joan Rose. “But in this study, sample after sample, bacterial concentrations were highest where there were higher numbers of septic systems in the watershed area.”
This belief that the soil filters human sewage, working as a natural treatment system is ubiquitous. Discharge-to-soil methods such as a simple pit dug under a toilet, are espoused today. Rose observes: “Unfortunately, these systems do not keep E. coli and other pathogens from water supplies.”
From a health perspective, if we want to kill the bacteria that can cause problems, putting feces underground in moist conditions is definitely not the answer. Exposing it to air and sunlight in the open is the trick, unfashionable and unpalatable as it may seem today.
The third benefit of OD is that it saves precious water. The western model is to use clean water to move shit and piss, contaminating it and all water sources downstream and underground. A few calculations will reveal the size of the problem. Let us assume 600 million people are defecating in the open. If they start using toilets and flushing once a day with about 8 liters per flush (don’t expect them to get fancy dual-flush toilets; they will be using buckets), we are talking 5 billion liters of water used per day. If they adopt the wasteful lifestyle of urbanites, and flush 5 times a day, then we use more water and generate more waste — an estimated 24 billion liters of sewage will be generated per day. Is this the right sanitation model for India?
Another factor to consider is the cleaning and maintenance since these toilets (not as smooth and strong as the ones urbanites are used to) will get dirty soon. In addition to more water, a massive ad campaign for chemical cleaners will toxify the wastewater stream and also add a plastic waste stream.
With over 1 billion people living in a country that has depleted and contaminated all its ancient water reserves in decades, it is imperative that we save water and try to regenerate our water banks, both in quantity and quality. Using water to move sewage along pipes and wash toilets is the most wasteful use of the precious fluid. And letting the resulting contamination out in public — should be considered criminal.
Yes, there are dry toilet, UDDT (Urine Diverting Dry Toilet), and composting toilet options available. But the million-plus toilets constructed in recent times are the regular pour flush toilets with one or two pits. The questions that needed to be asked before all the construction were: where will all the water come from? And where will all the sewage go?
The other construction practice that needs to be connected to the toilet issue is that of borewells. In the last few decades, there has been explosion of borewells in India. Millions of straws have been inserted into the earth to suck dry large, pure aquifers. The trillions of liters extracted have rendered shallow, middle, and deep aquifers dry across the vast country. Most of the water has been squandered but the process has changed lifestyles and expectations and created an increased dependency on water. So when the water runs out, our society, having lost our deep historical capacity to withstand drought, will struggle, finding answers only in further exploitation, inequity, and violence.
But the straws in the earth that have run dry still carry water. Dirty water. Downwards. Instead of percolating thru layers of earth, sewage (and other water carrying other contaminants such as pesticides) finds the nearest straw and rushes down its smooth surfaces. Without getting filtered. So not only are our ancient aquifers depleted, the few remaining pockets are now seriously contaminated, both biologically and chemically. Poisoning wells is an ancient guerilla warfare practice and we have practiced it prolifically on ourselves. A country apparently trying to commit suicide.
OD can stop this profanity.
So, then what is the all the fuss about making India ODF (open defecation free)?
It started with Gandhi and Nehru for whom the western toilet was a definition of progress. In the last few decades western funders started the construction boom funding thousands of toilets. The Swachch Bharat Mission (SBM) took this construction business to stratospheric levels. India has been enamoured by large construction projects. From dams to power plants, from sea-links to statues, the bigger the better. And, of course, the more foreign involvement, the better. Most of the projects have resulted in huge forex outlays and foreign debt, with overseas financers ecstatic.
The SBM was the first project which resulted in millions of low-cost small structures (even if some toilets ended up costing a lakh). The wealth was spread out in India and money was made by Indians, a large fraction going to the cement industry. So was it a good thing?
In its rapid dive into consumerism, India has given up its pride of workmanship and its work ethic; most of the results are achieved by jugaad. While things work, they don’t work smoothly, nor do they last long. They do not reflect any craftsmanship, nor do they engender pride and ownership. And the million toilets constructed are of the same ilk, or worse, as they are targeted to the rural poor whose complaints do not reach the elite’s ears. Who expects them to work properly, to not crumble away in a year, to be nice to use? Do we expect the cheap plastic pipes and fixtures, hastily glued together, to work? Do we really expect pits to be of the right depth (when the contractor can save money by reducing the capacity) and at a safe distance (even though studies question the currently held safe distance) from nearby water sources and borewells?
The western toilet model cannot be seen as a toilet in isolation. It requires a supply of water —which may lie kilometers away. And it requires a network taking away the sewage ending up in treatment plants. The Indian toilet construction boom has to be seen as building the first floor of a building without having a foundation and a ground floor. Toilets may be necessary, but built only after a solid foundation of water supply and safe containment and treatment of excreta are ensured. We cannot build toilets and then, as the call was made at the World Toilet Summit 2018 in Mumbai, make them usable and sustainable afterwards. By reversing the correct construction sequence, we are mocking everything we know about development and health in our mad rush to build. Unless the intent was to build, then demolish and rebuild.
While the statistics on toilet construction are hard to believe, the results of ODF touted are even harder. Most development sector folks are skeptical but not in public, because SBM and its ally, CSR, have become large source of funding. Large NGOs have been fattened with unprecedented levels of funding for toilet building. One large NGO of US origin got contracts to build toilets in public schools, where even the headmasters were unaware of the project. But after the ribbon-cutting ceremony, one school found itself having no resources to clean the toilet and, of course, the water supply was scarce. In many school projects in India, toilets remained locked, open only on days when visiting funders arrive.
Across India, the toilets at along bus routes are harbingers of the problems of toilet construction. Even urinals don’t work, the toilets stink, the water is unsafe to use, and disposal never happens. So do we expect toilets constructed at a rocket pace to actually be more usable, to be durable?
One reason for toilet construction that is touted and must be mentioned is safety. It is unsafe for women to go into the open to relieve themselves. This is a valid request, but is the answer a toilet? Let us consider other questions that are not asked, but need to be asked:
— What about women who want to go to the market (to buy or sell) without their husbands?
— What about women and girls who want to climb up a hill to watch the sunset?
— What about women and girls who need to travel (for school or livelihood)?
Women’s safety and stature is an important and urgent issue for Indian society to tackle. And daily elimination requirements and monthly menstrual cycles are fully part of this issue. Toilets should be included in the solution, but not as the sole panacea they are propagandized as today. We should also see that urbanites are atomized, connected more to institutions than their community. Rural people are yet connected to each other and function as communities (though we yet see the breakup of the community as progress, relentlessly continuing to atomicize them). Even OD has become a communal ritual, which urban sensibilities cannot fathom.
What about flies, you may ask? And disease? It is much easier to handle flies and aerobic bacteria than it is handle mosquitos and diseases that are water-borne. Malaria and dengue, amongst many, are better controlled thru OD than by figuring out expensive, high-maintenance, and often very toxic, ways to safely contain sewage. Learning techniques of covering poop with ash and sand and seeing how the poop of all the animals around us is absorbed by the landscape should point us innovative ways of treating human dung.
The momentum of toilets has started with the urban elite, who, of course, are ODF, and do not want to change any habits. This is the case with most development efforts, the rich and powerful are seen as the model to emulate. They do not have to change or question their behavior. It is just the poor that need aid and have to change to allow the country to ‘progress’.
Very well, you may say, OD makes sense in rural areas, especially dry rural areas such as the entire Deccan plateau and Rajasthan, Saurashtra, and Kutch. Maybe even in extremely wet rural areas like Bengal where contamination can turn into a huge issue. But, you may then ask, are you advocating it for urban areas too?
That is another entire discussion. Let’s leave it for the future with one thought: should we not consider the urban toilet users, 90% of whose output ends up uncontained — in lakes, streams, and rivers — as practicing a form of OD?
Meanwhile, the hope is that the toilet construction phase being over, the financial world will move on to elevated roads and nuclear power plants. And the spotlight will move off people practicing OD. And the toilets built will last for a while as storage houses or other creative uses rural folks can come up with. And thanks to OD, India’s water calamity will be postponed by a few years and hopefully at least one water-borne pandemic averted.