Al fresco action – our bid to rid the world of open defecation (10th SITE4Society Event – Part I)

As many as 2 billion people worldwide do not have access to functioning toilets, and more than 4 billion use toilets that may be contaminating water sources, according to the latest Sustainable Development Goals Report (2020). This matters because sanitation feeds into almost every other SDG through improving heath, reducing child mortality and school absenteeism, and even promoting gender empowerment.

Governments, public agencies, firms and charities are working hard to build toilets for the poor, but multiple issues remain: from partially constructed toilets to lack of running water and hand washing facilities to non-maintenance, to name just a few. Moreover, the main low-cost model – the two-pit latrine – is unsuitable for many regions including coastal areas.

So, how should we tackle these challenges? What have we learnt from the sanitation drives of the past two decades? To mark World Toilet Day, 19 November 2020, our SITE4Society group joined Friend-In-Need India to invite researchers and NGO reps to share their insights on this pressing issue. Each speaker had eight minutes to pitch an idea, followed by seven minutes of Q&A with the audience.

Opening the event, UNU-MERIT Director Bartel Van de Walle said: “This is just beyond imagination – that this is still the situation today, to have billions suffering from lack of access to basic amenities at a time when we are successfully launching spaceships to an international space station is unacceptable.” What follows below is a roundup of our expert discussions.

Social entrepreneurship solves the problem of untreated wastewater

Dr Serena Caucci, from our sister institute, UNU-FLORES, presented a remarkable case study of social entrepreneurship that transformed the lives of the farming community in the Mezquital Region of Mexico. “Mexico City is below sea level and to avoid flooding, there were canals built to take away rainwater. But, as it became a mega-city, water had to be piped into Mexico city from adjacent rural areas to satisfy the water demand – creating an enormous pressure on water supplies in the rural areas which were also growing the foods for the residents of Mexico City. To address this crisis, untreated wastewater from Mexico City was diverted back to the rural areas, increasing the incidence of excreta-related diseases exponentially there. Then a single man started demanding change, bringing together the local community and the municipality in a unique public-private partnership and setting up a successful waste water treatment plant!”

Gamified education improves hygiene behaviour 

Maaike de Vette, from ‘Aqua for All’ identified the three main challenges of WASH (or water, sanitation, and hygiene behaviour) of developing country schools as (i) Operational: getting the finance; (ii) Governance: getting school management and parents’  support; (iii) Behavioural change in students. So, they: “.. teamed up with Football for Water and conducted research. Whenever gamified hygiene behaviour lessons were introduced along with sanitation infrastructure – open defecation reduced, vandalism in toilets by students reduced, girls’ absenteeism reduced significantly! Moreover, this had a community impact – we saw a decrease in open defecation. And there was a significant drop in diarrhoea incidence along with reductions in coughs, colds and influenza. Now, this last point is interesting during the current Covid pandemic, because these are more airborne diseases.”

To make Nigeria Open Defecation Free – we need ‘WASHComs’!

Nweke Ifeanyi Green of Aguata LGA WASHCOM (i.e. A Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Committee) Federation advocated a three-pronged solution to make Nigeria Open Defecation Free: community mobilisation; support for NGOs to carry out this work; and WASH education in schools and colleges. “Community engagement is much more than just reaching out to people! Nigeria is a country of different communities, and within every village and town, there are different sub-communities. You need to know them, and you need to communicate with each of them differently – youth, women, elderly – to get their leaders on board. In 2019, the President of Nigeria declared that Nigeria is expected to become ODF by 2025. This is wonderful, but the government needs to hire the services of WASHComs. Currently, the revenue lines of WASHComs like ours are fragile. If the government can support and coordinate with grassroots WASHComs surely Nigeria can become ODF.”

Tackling river pollution in Albania

Lulzim Baumann of ENFORCE illustrated the water-sanitation link: “More than 1/3 of Albania’s 2.8 million people live along the Ishëm [river], which is heavily polluted by solid waste and sewage. This is leading to high rates of diarrhoeal disease and an enormous loss of biodiversity (e.g. fish and turtles)”. Why is this happening? “First, there is a lack of waste and sewage infrastructure and management with untreated sludge being disposed in the river along with other solid waste. These practices embedded in a governance system with strong hierarchies alongside unclear responsibilities and frequently changing staff and citizens marked by pessimism and a lack of awareness on environmental issues”.  Lulzim calls for all economic stakeholders to respond. “Even as humble citizens, we can help reduce water pollution by using less laundry detergent in every wash, switching to more ecological detergents made from plant-based alternatives such as soap nuts, soapwort, horse-chestnut etc. and we should stop using fabric softener!”

Let’s change the toilet design!

Shanmugarajan, from Friend In Need India Trust (FIN), briefly presented the essential FIN learnings on safe sanitation for coastal areas. The Clean India Mission, an ongoing national programme calls for universal sanitation coverage that is safe for the environment. Still, he pointed out: “the safety criterion is not being met in coastal areas, as the pit latrine model diffused under the national programme doesn’t work in areas with a high water table. Instead, pit latrines contaminate groundwater sources and set into motion a vicious cycle of ill-health. So, we had to come up with an alternative. It’s called an eco-san toilet. The toilet slab is built so that the urine and faeces are separated, and the faeces are dried separately to become compost and then used to grow fruit trees. The toilet generates multiple values as it not only provides dignity but also compost and health! Thus, even though the eco-san model is not easy to build or use, through steady accompaniment and motivation, eco-san toilet usage is thriving in Kameswaram village.”

Let’s re-design the whole sanitation strategy!

Madita Morgenstern-Antao, of IDEASEIN, proposed: “It’s time for a break in the way we are currently implementing toilet solutions across the globe. There are millions of abandoned toilets, also in developing countries. We suggest a three-step approach. First, communicating about toilet usage and upkeep understandably. Second, designing local for local, integrating constraints of behaviour, materials, laws, social norms etc. through extensive interaction with local community members. Third, creating a desirable product that ensures long term usage, and behavioural change by ensuring that it is aspirational and improves status in the community and for the community.”

To sum up, our speakers identified the many faces of the sanitation challenge of the world today. They also offered hope for change. So, the remaining 2 billion toilets to be built should be better! For more information, please view the video below.