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Jeffrey Barbee on India’s sanitation issues and what’s being done to alleviate it

A functioning toilet is something most of us pretty much take for granted. It’s not something we even think about all that often, it’s just there, and always have been a part of our lives. But for people in certain cities, like that of Sabitha Nagar in India, proper sanitation is not as easily accessible. Jeffrey Barbee’s article below, featured on the Alliance Earth Medium page, highlights India’s sanitation problems and what the country and government are doing to help.

Lakshmi Mudengala, 28, cleans clothes in the village of Sabitha Nagar, 10km outside of Hyderabad India
Lakshmi Mudengala, 28, cleans clothes in the village of Sabitha Nagar, 10km outside of Hyderabad India. There is no sanitation in the village.

Twenty one year old Kumar Machimpali sits on a wooden stool in front of a small hut with a fire burning inside to heat up his bath water. Next to him his neighbor washes clothes on the public rock they use here for cleaning and bathing. As she squeezes and twists the bright cotton, sparkles of water fall in the evening light onto the grey stone, running away below them into the bushes strewn with plastic waste.

Around 500 families live here in Sabitha Nagar, a small rural enclave 10 kilometers outside Hyderabad, India. Most, like Kumar, live in makeshift houses with no sanitation. According to Oxford Economics this is the fourth-fastest growing city in the world, and it is here that a new research-based effort to improve people’s lives is being trialed by US, UK and Indian scientists.

Ten minutes up the road from Sabitha Nagar is the shiny new Microsoft, India Headquarters. Around the corner is the local Coca Cola plant. Like many of his neighbors who now work at big multinationals in their hand-washed clothes, Kumar spends his days making sure nearby Hitachi’s buildings are clean and tidy.

In 2014 India started a nationwide campaign, Called Swachh Bharat, which means “Clean India”, the ambitious plan claims to have already built more than 90 million improved toilets countrywide reaching almost 100% of its people, but more needs to be done.

India is paying for the plan through a 0.5% value added tax on all goods and services in the country in order to modernize its sanitation system and stop relying on ecosystems like the small nearby forest Kumar and his neighbors use as a toilet.

Researcher Simon Willcock is visiting villages like Sabitha Nagar for a new study called RUST, the Rural And Urban Sanitation Transformation project. Standing in the fading light of day next to Kumar’s house he explains that poor sanitation is causing major environmental challenges to local ecosystems.

In the town of Muthyala Gurda, 90 km east of the Indian city of Hyderabad, a lady harvests grass from the Musi floodplain.
In the town of Muthyala Gurda, 90 km east of the Indian city of Hyderabad, a lady harvests grass from the Musi River floodplain in order to sell on to the city. The river is so dirty they cannot use it to grow crops or water their buffalo, so grass is their only export.

Willcock, a senior lecturer from Bangor University in Wales is here to help create this new information system that uses technology and research to assist Indian policies like Swachh Bharat. “We have to plan how to treat human waste safely, because ecosystems can only do so much before collapsing.”

Financed by the Indian and UK governments, the RUST project is building this real-time database of local knowledge from communities using Open Data Kit (ODK) software to track a suite of crucial environmental metrics.

The teams head out with a special open-source software system loaded on tablet computers, GPS mapping, and social development information from 3000 communities like Kumar’s across Hyderabad’s 8.7 million people to track how ecosystems like the nearby Musi River are being relied on to provide essential services, and how to improve them.

The multi-year study tracks obvious things like where people get their water and where they use the toilet, but also other metrics that define free time, satisfaction, other ecosystem services and even how they see their future.

On the banks of the Musi River 80 kilometers downstream of Hyderabad the grass is green but the air is foul. Like many rivers in this country of 1.3 billion people, millions of liters of human waste flow directly into the Musi every day.

This worries the local leader, Mr Katerdi. “We are facing this water pollution that is ruining our rice. It is also stopping our cows from giving milk, which the farmers used to sell.”

For the Indian government to clean up rivers like the Musi the RUST data is needed to ensure it works, explains Dr Indunee Welivita, a Sri Lankan researcher from Bangor University who is working on the project. “I think there is a lot of potential for research to solve problems like this, because with the right information we can make this better”.

The information from the project is designed to be delivered to local city planners and the national government in near real-time, so they can make fast decisions about how to fix it instead of waiting years for published research to influence policy, explains Welivita.

RUST project fills out the online survey
A researcher for the RUST project fills out the online survey with her tablet, the question asks, “have you benefited from the construction of public toilets?” The marked answer indicates no.

One place that is already a working example of how to harness nature to clean the Musi River is Amberpet, one of Asia’s largest waste treatment plants. 339 million liters of raw sewage is processed here every day using a special zero-input, environmentally friendly process that cleans the water and helps finance its own operation.

Amberpet, Hyderabad
Amberpet, Hyderabad one of Asia’s largest waste treatment plants. 339 million liters of raw sewage is processed here every day using a special zero-input environmentally friendly process that not only cleans the water but helps finance it’s own operation. One of the guard dogs at the plant enjoys chasing the birds that gather at the outflow.

Dealing with India’s sanitation problem can also be profitable. The system generates up to 5 MW of electricity burning the captured methane coming off of the sewage and sells 80 tons of clean fertilizer to the Indian market per day.

Willcock says he is hopeful that the national drive to improve the environmental health of the country will work. “With Swachh Bharat the Indian government has really been able to show that they have been able to successfully do things on an extremely large scale.”

The water from the plant is clean enough to grow crops safely claims the plant’s technical director Sorya Prakasa, standing in his laboratory, and is discharged back into the Musi River. He says that by 2025 the government will handle 100% of the sewage in the city. He looks out across the last stage of the process, a glittering shallow lagoon where hundreds of different birds wade. “The birds here are nature’s stamp of approval” he says proudly.

Back in Sabitha Nagar on the outskirts of Hyderabad, Kumar has heard of Swacch Bharat and its promise of a cleaner India, but until he sees real change in his village he says it is just political promises. “I am still going to the forest to use the toilet like an animal.” He says angrily, “I hate it”.

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