Sanitation and the City
How is one to conceive of both the organization of a city and the construction of a collective infrastructure?
There has been much literature about the urbanizing world, the subsequent rapid transformation of cities and the associated pressure this puts on planning and more so how to build resilient and inclusive cities. The kind of cities that are emerging, and I am talking particularly about Indian cities but the same can be said for most of the cities of the global south, are characterized by physical and visual contractions. Global economies and ‘world-class-slum-free’ imaginaries rub up against basic subsistence and poverty. India’s post liberalized economy has brought glamour but it has also created the conditions for the marginalization of mass segments of society compounding a culture of have and have-nots. This culture is most acutely seen in the asymmetrical distribution of infrastructure services and none more so than sanitation.
In general our cities are a historical evolution and iteration of expressions of infrastructure working in harmony or discord to set the foundations for our most basic human needs and then all else to follow. However, globally 1.1 billion people lack access to safe water and 2.6 to sanitation. Our sanitation evolution seems to have stopped dead in its tracks without the mechanisms, ideas and language to move forward.
It was the economist Amartya Sen who first recognized that poverty is, fundamentally, not just the lack of money, but the absence of capacities – the lack of tools or opportunities needed to function as a full citizen. The hyper commodification of social necessities (housing, transportation, utilities, public space, healthcare, education, and water and sewerage disposal) is predicated on an individual’s capacity to ‘buy-in’ which in the Indian context is creating a crisis of limited capacities.
More than half of India’s poor population defecate in the open, according to the latest statistics from the World Health Organization and the United Nations. The 2011 Indian Census data told us that more people in India have a mobile phone than a toilet. A statistic that should not be surprising: a mobile phone doesn’t poo and mobiles are cheap; yet is often touted as something we should be shocked by. The census report created a flurry of activity, such as the state of Harayana to commit to the construction of 1.4 million toilets and drives like the ‘no toilet, no bride’ campaign.
The Gates foundation quick to the mark in 2011 launched the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge (RTTC) to develop toilets without connections to sewer, electrical, or water systems. With skepticism, I look forward to the seeing the winning 16 prototypes at the Reinvent the Toilet Fair to be held in Delhi this week where I will also be showing work done in the sector with the Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE) and Arghayam. I say with scepticism because from what you can find online details of the prototypes include: “Urine is filtered through sand, and the resulting fluid is sterilised with ultraviolet light” and “a tank feeds mixed urine and faeces through a rig that heats it to 200°C under high pressure, killing pathogens” – and these are meant to be prototypes for household-level toilets for, I presume, the urban and rural poor!
Women bear the brunt of poor water and sanitation services as they have a much closer relationship with water and are thus culturally and physically more affected by any deficiency. This is compounded for the urban poor who have to work jobs in addition to housework.
The idea of distributing water and sanitation the poor has long been abandoned by the state. In this absence of collective infrastructure individual infrastructure dominates the physical fabric of the city. In this case, residents of a slum in Gowandi, Mumbai have individual pipes which take water from the closest municipal pipe line to their homes. The emerging landscape of individual increments is screaming for collective action.
In my opinion the emphasis on individual toilets is grossly missing the point. So although in macro terms 64 percent of Indian households in towns and cities do not have access to any kind of toilet or latrine, roughly half of urban India has flush/pour toilet latrines of which only 18.8 percent of these toilets are connected to a piped sewerage system. What this means in layman terms is that out of all the toilets that India does have only 18.8% are connected to sewers and the rest discharge raw untreated effluent into open drains or to stagnate in low lying land. And equally alarming is that in the cases where these toilets are connecting to sewers, where are these sewers going?
Without access to proper data but based on extensive field work many sewers in Indian towns and cities are directed not to sewage treatment plants but to open flowing natural ‘canal-like’ bodies (called naalas), seeping into the ground, polluting groundwater and eventually flowing into principal rivers and other water bodies. The end result is that all individuals are collectively affected by such universal environmental degradation. And so, the emphasis needs to move away from (individual) toilets to encompass the entire sanitation value chain and crucially to frame collective solutions for our collective problem.
I understand the Gates RTTC drive to move away from sewer and water based systems. It is a waste to take something as valuable as water mix it with poo, which in turn makes it harder to convert the poo into something valuable (which it is), and send this down a drain where eventually it gets treated by an expensive process in a sewage treatment plant. However to disregard water, particularly in India, is to disregard the existing culture surrounding defecation and cleaning habits; and expecting the poorest of the poor to change such water-based habits is where many sanitation drives have failed. Sanitation is a technical problem but more so than that it is a people problem. And so to intervene in any given context it is important to understand the existing cultural barriers and existing sanitation practice. Fact remains that open defecation is a strong competitor for any given alternative.
The predominant systems (aside from open defecation) commonly used in poor urban and peri-urban India are cesspools which are emptied, toilets connecting directly into open drains and or septic tanks with soak pits, and septic tanks overflowing into open drains. All these systems are predominantly ad-hoc, unsanitary and contributing to groundwater pollution. Under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), a handful of cities are planning conventional systems within large catchment areas – but this is limited in scope as conventional, mechanical systems are good when the high capital input and operation and maintenance costs can be absorbed.
Looking forward, I agree with the Gates drive, we need to move beyond conventional sanitation systems particularly for low income, fringe and marginalized areas because of prohibitive costs and timescales. We need a more nuanced set of lenses to not only look at the problem but crucially how to intervene. But we need to be more localized and no longer seek for universal solutions. Without needing ‘ultraviolet light’ or ‘a rig that heats to 200°C under high pressure’ there are already a multiplitude of small low tech, decentralized, natural systems and methods that are viable alternatives to centralized, high capital, mechanical systems in line with the micro re-use of water. These systems do, however, require community involvement to not only ensure success and sustainability but because we need to be able to retrofit sanitation solutions to most of the 1.2 billion Indians in light of the existing sanitation deficiency.
Community involvement or participation is a complex and variable design practice. Because of the incremental nature of how low income settlements develop – if you build a sewer line, residents in the area will build their own toilets and connect into the system. In this sense sanitation is a catalytic in that it drives a positive housing economy. In terms of design, because of this indigenous and incremental nature of city building, the emphasis must be on piece-meal growth as opposed to systems that are built in one fell swoop. However for any type of sanitation system to have longevity (i.e. an operation and maintenance strategy) institution building needs to happen alongside infrastructure building.
Aspects such as a connection charge are effective ways of achieving this and institutionalizing responsibility and critically, ownership. The bottom line for any successfully intervention, and more so if you are retrofitting a system to an existing settlement, is community buy-in – without which nothing will be done or be sustainable. Community is a word often thrown around and is a complete misnomer. What are called ‘communities’ are agglomerations of individuals with varying needs, abilities, desires, aspirations, religions and so on. Working within such plurality requires flexibility and iterative design processes. For example, when retrofitting in poor communities’ attention needs to be delivered to assist people in the incremental construction of their homes in the form of small grants and loans as homebuilding and sanitation come hand-in-hand.
Identifying beneficiaries and setting up micro financing should not been seen as outside the design process. And so developing sanitation in line with an NGO (or similar) to mobilize the ‘community’ and assist in such interventions is key. Sanitation is not simply a matter of plumbing but is a deeply social endeavour. The final, and possibly most important technical point, is the issue of the location of the shared / community components (for example Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems, DEWATs) which form part of any treatment system – and crucially if located outside the confines of the (private) home.
In most existing urban settlements there is no unclaimed land, on the contrary land rights are complex and often subject to multiple claims. Navigating this requires the communities existing governance and (official and unofficial) institutional orders to participate in identifying, locating and making available suitable locations. Standardised solutions are problematic where capital is scare and proposals need to be able to adjust to the context so as to maximise the use of local resources. Through the participatory planning and project management processes other emancipatory benefits are gained by the community as a collective cultural vision or aspiration and institution building happens alongside the desire to fulfil individual and family needs.
And so we come full circle and why I opened with the Foucault quote: what is missing in the current sanitation paradigm is not a lack of formal ‘rights’ it is the actualization of those rights in to capacities and this is the participatory dimension (a deeply local and nuanced process) which I have described above. In most of our cities the ideal of distributed services has long been abandoned in favour of the individual – the soul of capitalism – when what we really need is more ‘town’, more civitas, more society, more cooperation, and more sharing. We don’t need to reinvent the toilet we need to reinvent the citizen as an individual within the collective whole.
Julia King is an architect (RIBA II, AA Dip) and urban researcher based out of London and Delhi. Her practice addresses housing, infrastructure (water and sanitation), urban planning, inclusive development and participatory design processes. She is also a PhD candidate within the research department Architecture of Rapid Change and Scarce Resources (ARCSR) at London Metropolitan University.
This year Julia was awarded Emerging Woman Architect of the Year by the Architectural Journal and won a SEED Award for ‘Excellence in Public Interest Design‘. Her work has been featured in numerous publications in the UK and India and was included in ICON magazines ‘Future 50’, “a snap shot of 50 young designers and architects (who) are pushing the boundaries of their disciplines and trying to change the world”. She currently runs a design and research practice in Delhi incubated within the Indian NGO CURE, Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence. Current projects include large scale planning for low income neighbourhoods, various sanitation initiatives and housing projects.