If sanitation is treated as a community problem, we can make something happen for very little money

If sanitation is treated as a community problem, we can make something happen for very little money

Just like a better iPhone is not the solution to poor telecom connectivity, sanitation cannot be solved by a smart, well-designed product, sold at the right price, says Julia King, researcher and architectural designer who has been designing community toilets in Savda Ghevra, a resettlement colony in Delhi

Although sanitation, especially building toilets, is a major thrust area of the Centre, it is routinely criticised for ignoring the backend infrastructure necessary to dispose and treat excreta. This is especially crippling in urban informal settlements and slums, where the national mission or Swachh Bharat Mission has contributed almost nothing towards improving existing sanitation and hygiene. To understand what is needed to improve sanitation infrastructure in these highly dense and economically stressed human habitats, Avikal Somvanshi spoke with Julia King, a London-based Venezuelan architectural designer and urban researcher at LSE Cities, who has been designing community toilets with a Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Regional Excellence (CURE) in Savda Ghevra, a resettlement colony for residents evicted from the slums of Delhi during the 2010 Commonwealth Games  beautification drive.  

How did you end up designing toilets in Savda Ghevra?

I arrived at Savda Ghvera in 2010 and got in touch with CURE to see if they could assist my research on the accelerators and barriers to housing investment. I had some funding earmarked to see a project available through my PhD, which given my training as an architect I assumed I would use to develop designs and build prototypical housing models. However, the more interviews I did with residents the more I realised the interconnected relationship between housing investment and the addition of a latrine. The idea that infrastructure would leverage housing construction became a central thesis of the conversations I started having with CURE- and still do-and quickly we realised that if we wanted to drive positive development in Savda Ghevra, what was needed was not architect-designed homes, but a sewage system. 

As a group we also felt confident we could have conversations with the community about sanitation as CURE and the department where I was doing my PhD-the Architecture of Rapid Change and Scarce Resources at London Metropolitan University-had just completed a DEWATS (Decentralised Wastewater Treatment System) in Agra which had been incredibly well received. We started talking to the community about their needs, purposefully not leading with sanitation.

We got residents together and asked them to vote on their most pressing concerns and if it had been roads you would be probably asking about that right now; or if it had been transport links this interview would be about that; but it was toilets and it was really that moment that sanitation picked me, rather than I picking it.

DEWATS have been around for a while now but is seen as technology that requires too much space. How did you and CURE customise it for a dense settlement such as Savda Ghevra?

You are right. The kinds of technologies we are talking about have been around for a long time. In fact, my great-great-grandfather built DEWATS so as not to pollute the Maracaibo Lake in Venezuela. And it is important to put this story into the context of how it came about. We started this project in 2010-11 when there wasn't the attention, present now, on sanitation and toilets. Savda Ghevra is located on the periphery of Delhi and back then it was incredibly difficult to get to. It was serviced by one bus and was a very desperate place on the edge of the city with almost no civic infrastructure. Individual toilets were a big problem. It was obvious that if we treated the problem like a series of individual problems we had very few solutions available. But the second we treated it as a common problem, all of a sudden for very little money, we can make something happen. 

There were many conversations: why not dry toilets (people use water), why not pit latrines (not enough space and too dense), we wanted an intermediate technology (capable of adapting to future alternative scenarios) but DEWATS was a system that could work with the existing built environment and existing skills within the community.  

Final design that was built is a shared closed-loop, sanitation system or a cluster septic tank that is networked to home toilets through simple sewer lines, is upended to a decentralised wastewater treatment system to convert black water into a useful resource for irrigating, flushing, construction.

How did you get residents to buy your idea?

CURE can offer more insights into community buy-in because this wasn't as simple as one would imagine. But a real watershed moment for the project was a workshop where I had made front elevation models of homes and we used coloured straws to indicate existing infrastructure (for those households that had built the economical viable but unsuitable cesspits beneath their homes), new infrastructure and how a communal septic tank system would work. Here residents could see we were valuing the existing investments they had made in their homes and the wider environment and that we were not bulldozing through those often small and discreet investments. 

What were the major design challenges?

The major design challenge was not the design (in a pure sense). It was keeping a community engaged in a project that took three years to materialise, to raise the funds when nobody wanted to invest in sewage / toilets, to convince the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi that this was a worthwhile project and now CURE are involved in the hardest part: how to walk away. This involves ensuring the community has the capacity to sustain such systems but also that municipalities have the language and skills to work with communities and not through a non-profit intermediary.

Is this system replicable?

The system is incredibly replicable, which I find problematic because the work was never in designing the system - the work was in the process: carefully retrofitting and empowering a community to be part of a transformation where the violence and precarity of the lack of a toilet was transformed into political power, technical capacity and dignity. 

Any advice for people hoping to adopt this system?

My advice for people hoping to adopt this system is that they should place importance on the process and not the thing. Do not engage communities to validate pre-conceived ideas through 'citizen engagement/participation'. Be ready to stay for a while and listen to the less powerful. 

As for designers in particular this is a practice of architecture/design which is promising not just because it delivers free/inspiring designs, but precisely because it is a practice willing to get tangled up in the laws, politics and polices of everyday life.

In your opinion, how will the community-based approach to provide basic infrastructure fit into India’s digital ambition?

This might sound like an intellectual point but I genuinely believe what is stiffening the development of basic infrastructure is that as India leaps into the digital age and the internet of things will "save us" is becoming the main policy discourse, basic infrastructure gets left behind. And this will make me unpopular with Bill and Melinda Gates funded projects-many of which imagine a product costing the amount of a washing machine, but requiring huge amounts of electricity to convert effluent into useful products such as charcoal-treat sanitation like a problem to be solved by the individual. Thinking that a problem can be solved by a smart, well-designed product, sold at the right price is similar to thinking that a better iPhone is the solution to poor telecom connectivity. 

What is desperately needed is to think about aggregates of individuals (dare I say communities); because if we see ourselves as neighbourhoods with common problems we actually have the solutions readily available and at the right price points. It is not the lack of technology that is holding back India in terms of sanitation. Fundamentally, it is the lack of political will and its inability to see the problem in totality. 

This interview is part of an upcoming book about sustainable building practices across India. 'Building Wise' will be published by the Centre for Science and Environment. 

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