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Eco-San toilets provide hope in flood-prone Bihar

Incessant rain in August along the Nepal-India border caused flooding in many districts of Bihar — leaving over 300 dead and affecting nearly 14 million people in 18 districts.

Now, another threat looms: Waterborne diseases. In flood conditions, drinking water becomes a luxury as many sources are either fully or partially inundated, rendering them useless. People who try to use hand pumps in flooded areas may consume contaminated water.

In Naya Tola Bishambharpur (NTB), in West Champaran district, the watery quagmire surrounding the village poses another formidable challenge. During floods, sanitation becomes a particular problem as people have reduced means of maintaining personal hygiene, especially with regard to defecation.

Open defecation only adds to the contamination of ground water, which then affects those who use it for household uses. A workable solution would require addressing multiple needs regarding clean drinking water and secure sanitation.

To this end, the phaydemand sauchalaya, or eco-san toilet, was introduced in NTB to address the needs of safe and secure sanitation. Through its innovative structural design, the eco-san toilet offers an effective means of addressing sanitation compared to standard flush toilets.

In the alluvial flood plains of Bihar, the use of flush toilets increases the risk of contaminating the shallow water table. Such toilets also face clogging, raising the risk of infection for users, specifically women and children, in a region prone to floods.

The eco-san toilet is constructed on raised platforms to ensure access even during flood conditions. The height of the toilets is determined on the basis of the highest flood water levels anticipated in the area.

The toilet has two different openings that collect urine and faecal matter — connected to two separate storage tanks below the toilet, which are situated above ground. Because the eco-san is a dry toilet, the breakdown of faecal matter creates no foul odour.

The collection pits can be accessed by openings created by uncemented bricks positioned at the back of the eco-san toilet. Faecal matter, now in its form as humanure, can be applied to crops as fertiliser, and the urine as a urea substitute. As a flood-adaptive technology, the toilet not only provides secure use, but due to its water-less design, also cuts the risk of groundwater contamination and successive infections.

Any successful technology intervention must be adopted by the intended beneficiaries. On this count, a study by Purnamita Dasgupta at the Institute of Economic Growth, New Delhi, seems to indicate success.

Dasgupta’s 2016 study details high levels of vulnerability to floods and extreme health risks faced in West Champaran due to inadequate sanitation. Her team did a cost-benefit analysis of adopting eco-san toilets and found that substantial health costs and convenience losses can be averted by ensuring access to toilets. Ecological sanitation options provide the most cost-effective adaptation option where benefits far exceed the cost.

Live examples of toilets that are currently being used by households in the Kairi community in West Champaran are a testimony to the effectiveness of eco-san toilets as a viable solution for sanitation in flood-affected regions.

Since 2015, residents of the village have been constructing toilets one by one, seeing the positive reaction from their neighbours who had already done so.

On August 8, when flood waters rushed through the village entering homes and even washing away an embankment of geo-bags along the Pandai river, the eco-san toilet remained standing, and accessible. The flood waters that came to Kairi only remained for a few hours, but even at their peak level, the top steps of the toilet remained above the water.

This is a promising turn of events, as the level of floodwaters reported in this area have been the highest in the region, even compared to worse flood events in recent memory such as in 1993.

Waterborne diseases do not directly arise from the use of these toilets, because the chambers protect the waste matter from direct contact with the flood water. This also proves the efficacy of eco-san toilets which is a cost-effective technology and can provide crucial access to sanitation during floods.

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