"Ecosan is not a second-rate approach"

The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) related to sanitation rely on flushing systems. Uno Winblad, senior adviser, Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), Sweden, tells S V Suresh Babu that the ecosan approach can do the job much better

By Suresh Babu S V
Published: Tuesday 31 January 2006

How grave is the problem posed by lack of sanitation facilities?
According to a recent sei report , 95,000 toilet systems must be installed everyday between 2003 and 2015, if we are to meet the mdg related to sanitation. Moreover, the simplistic premise that a toilet built is a toilet used doesn't hold good. And then, one must not forget that toilets become defunct after a few years. If all these factors are accounted for, we might require about 200,000 installations per day.

But is all talk on the MDGs mere eyewash?
No, it's good that sanitation is recognised as an mdg. However, the way good sanitation is understood, betrays an ignorance of ground realities. The practices promoted today are either based on hiding human excreta in deep pits or flushing them away -- for dilution in seas, rivers or other water bodies. Such investments will lead to more pollution and create more inequality.

In urban areas, policy-makers still favour expensive and water-intensive flush systems . Though about a billion are connected to sewerage systems, the sewage of only 300 million undergo end-of-pipe treatment before being discharged into water bodies.

Policy-makers continue to advocate pit toilets for all rural areas, even though building such toilets is expensive.

What should be the alternate sanitation strategy?
Firstly, every household, work place and school should have hygienic toilets and adequate washing facilities. And that includes the 2 billion people (40 per cent of the world's urban population, most of them in Asia) expected to live in urban slums in the near future. Secondly, 3,000 million kg of human urine and 1,200 kg of faeces generated globally every day should be turned into resources for food production.

Any examples of such approaches?
During the past 20 years a promising approach has emerged: ecological sanitation, or ecosan. Its guiding principle is that excreta should be sanitised and turned into hygienic and fertile soil -- rather than hiding or diluting it.

Ecosan places a premium on preventing disease and water pollution, it lays great store on recycling nutrients and also emphasises water conservation. The approach is based on a simple principle: one should not mix water, faeces, urine, greywater, street run-off, and industrial wastewater.

Is ecosan an option for urban slums and squatters?
Yes, ecosan was, in fact, envisaged for urban slum dwellers. The eco-toilets are either attached to a house, or placed right inside it. This makes them quite apt for houses in slums where there is very little place between dwellings, besides, the houses can rarely afford the luxury of a backyard.

A slum in Hermosa Provincia in El Salvador was among the first to use the ecosan approach. Similar models are now in vogue in south China as well.

What about the middle class?
There have been experiments on different ecosan models: low-cost options for rural areas in Zimbabwe, middle-cost amenities for middle class rural and urban communities in China, India and Mexico, and the hi-tech line pioneered for urban development in Germany. These exeriments share the basic ecosan approach of not polluting the atmosphere and returning sanitised human excreta to the soil. The purpose is to demonstrate that ecosan is not a second rate option, fit only for those who cannot afford sewers.

How viable is the system for India?
The approach is not new to the country. Mahatma Gandhi advocated a similar approach and during the 1940s and 1950s, there was some development on what we later named ecosan. In fact, over the past 10 years, ecosan has been tried out, with some success in densely built-up, high water-table coastal areas of Kerala.

Used intelligently, ecosan is quite relevant for India. Wastelands can be turned productive by soil conditioners produced from excreta. Ecosan-based community toilets are quite apt for slums in India. Slum dwellers can install such toilets without having to worry about redesigning their houses.

How can ecosan be integrated into government policy?
To get the attention of India's planners and decision-makers, we need to successfully carry out one or two large-scale projects, targeted at at least 10,000 people, in the country. Implementing ecosan projects at such scale will also offer us the scope to demonstrate all aspects of this approach.

What kind of behavioural changes are required to create demand for ecosan?
People will accept ecosan when they see for themselves that the approach actually works. But until ecosan becomes part of a local culture, any new project must be accompanied by major communications efforts.

Building political will is equally important. Perhaps only when human excreta are seen as valuable agricultural resources, can we expect political will to increase.

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