Guest Author: Arumugam Kalimuthu | Program Director | WASH Institute

Sanitation and the need to comprehensively address its varied challenges is emerging as a key priority in India and other developing countries across the world, and in the past 2 years the Indian Government’s promotion of Swachh Bharat (Clean India) has pushed the issue into the limelight – and kept it there. This is essential for India where nearly 50 percent of India’s population still defecates in the open. This sanitation deficit is inextricably linked to poor health outcomes (WHO, 2012) and as Unicef estimates that 1000 children dies every day because of diarrhea caused by this.  In a bid to address the issue the government and development agencies in India have undertaken major initiatives in support of “fixed-point” defecation – primarily through construction of toilets and promotion of “ODF” Villages (unless you ensure the entire village is ODF – Open Defacation Free – then you still risk disease spread). However, the increased coverage has created a new problem: not enough attention to managing fecal sludge, especially at the household level.

Fecal Sludge and Septage Management (FSSM) refers to the safe removal/emptying, transport, treatment and disposal of fecal sludge and septage. In India’s urban and peri-urban areas, as well as in villages, there has never been any planning for managing this waste and now that efforts to get people to use toilets are succeeding, the new problem of how to manage the Fecal Sludge and Septage needs urgent attention.  Proper and regular removal of fecal sludge from toilet pits and septic tanks requires safe transportation, treatment and disposal to avoid threat to human health and the environment.

Besides the usual contaminants characterized by biological oxygen demand and chemical oxygen demand, fecal sludge contains ammonia/nitrogen and phosphorus, which can adversely affect surface and ground water quality. Notably, the more serious and immediate concern is the health risk posed by pathogens, viruses and parasites that fecal sludge harbors. The inadequate attention on the matter has led to some collectors and tanker operators dumping the sludge either in bodies of water or on the outskirts of cities leading to contamination of drinking water sources, piped supplies, hand pumps, agriculture crops, vegetables etc.

Lack of infrastructure and systems means that in most towns mechanized de-sludging devices are not available and fecal sludge is removed manually from pits/tanks, causing serious exposure to manual scavenger’s/sanitation workers and leading to, among others, skin and respiratory infections and reduced life span. In India, despite manual scavenging being banned through a recent legislation the practice continues across the country illegally. In view of its multiple threats to human health and environment, effective and safe management of fecal sludge, including its removal, collection, handling, transport, treatment, and disposal, must be viewed as an integral component of a comprehensive sanitation agenda.

The urgent issue of how the fecal sludge from these on-site facilities is to be handled is in need of due consideration. Unless the issue of sanitation is addressed holistically, India cannot hope to have definitive systems in place to improve sanitation and the health of its people. For it to be sustainable, the model for FSSM service provision must be viable, comprehensive, technologically sound and affordable.

Many organizations such as the WASH Institute, CDD Society etc. have been conducting research in different parts of the country in sludge and septage management as they try to find innovative technologies for treating and using fecal sludge.

Recent research has attempted to separate the solid and liquid elements in fecal sludge at the source point using different methods by Solid Liquid separation and Treatment; through treatment of the liquid effluent from the septic tank through chlorination and electro chlorination mechanisms; by treating and drying fecal sludge for agricultural use as fertilizers; and by finding avenues to transform the fecal sludge into biomass and use it for renewable energy. The results of these and similar research through out South Asia are yet to be determined, but the quantity of the research ongoing both within the country itself and its neighboring countries gives hope for the future sanitation goals of India.

What is clear is that unless India does find a solution for FSSM soon then the new momentum built up across the country to use toilets will become a new source of disease and ill health instead of a solution.

The WASH Institute was set up 10 years ago to build capacity across India to ensure safe water and sanitation services for all; it runs formal and non-formal courses for key skills in the water and sanitation sector and conducts research into appropriate technological solutions.  The Institute is the technical support agency to the Ministry of Urban Development to implement Swachh Bharat across all urban bodies in India.

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