World Water Day 2018: How Sanitation Can Help the Environment
(Caption: Community Volunteer, Gowri (blue) with the members of Gram Panchayat, Chinnanaur) .
By Shibaji Bose and Swathi Manchikanti
NEW DELHI, India, 22 March 2018 -This year’s World Water Day theme is ‘Nature for Water’, which asks us to reflect upon the intersection between environment, water, and health and the effect of the convergence of the three more important aspects of our lives.
This theme is particularly relevant for India, where lack of access to safe water annually contributes to over 117,000 children dying from diarrhoea, and 37.7 million Indians being affected by waterborne diseases such as typhoid and cholera.
While, according to the JMP 2017 Report, an estimated 87.56 per cent of Indians have access to basic drinking water, many remain in a precarious situation, especially due to climate change.
Those living in fragile situations are four times more likely to lack basic drinking water, which increases their risk of seeking out and using contaminated water sources. Especially as, according to the 2018 UN World Water Development Report, over ’80 per cent of waste water generated by society flows back into the environment without being treated or reused’.
In India, the Swachh Bharat Mission, a nationwide campaign launched in 2014 to eliminate the practice of open defecation by 2019 helps achieve the multiple Sustainable Development Goals. While the primary function of the Mission is to realize open defecation free communities by making sure all households construct and use a toilet, it also serves to benefit the water resources abetting them, by ensuring that faecal waste is contained, instead of flowing in from the fields.
The simple act of using a toilet helps separate the waste from human contact and our drinking water sources, which can in turn drastically decrease the diarrheal incidence in and mortality rates of our most vulnerable – our children.
The Mission’s grassroots approach and fundamental belief in one’s right to access safe sanitation and hygiene has given rise to many success stories of community motivators who have changed villages and towns, government officials who have accelerated progress by becoming fully committed to the cause.
One particular story comes from Chinnanaur village in Tamil Nadu. The village has won many awards over the years for its high standards for cleanliness. According to motivators and village elders, the clean village campaign has gained momentum between 2015 and 2016.
An ex-Gram Panchayat (village council) member said, “Most self-help group members and other key opinion leaders were provided with the requisite technical, and motivational know how by UNICEF about the positives of an ODF village and how to go about achieving the goal.”
“There was a community meeting every month to increase the usage of the toilets”, said an elderly motivator. “We had a total of 22 self-help groups and 15 members per group attending these monthly meetings. Not less than 350 villagers met in these meetings to discuss micro-level plans,” adds the motivator.
What makes this village unique is the perseverance and tenacity, shown by the village motivators in the face of adversity. One of the motivators recalling those days said, “Initially, we were ridiculed, we had to hear a lot of adverse comments, some of the households shut their door in our face.”
Gowri, the village motivator for Chinnanaur, recalling the challenges of early 2015, says that scenario has changed beyond recognition. Earlier, she had even faced opposition from her own family for taking up the job. Today her husband not only supports her but helps her to get the work done. Her two adolescent children are proud of her accomplishments.
The result of the village’s collaborative efforts has been admirable. The nurse at the Primary Health Centre pointed out that in just two short years, there was a substantial reduction in diarrheal cases, particularly so among children; malaria and typhoid caseloads had also shrunk. A village elderly pointed out the noticeable positive difference the reduction in health issues had made on the household budget, as well.
With the money received from its awards, Chinnanaur residents not only chose to build a community hall for the benefit of the entire village but also leveraged their status as an open defecation free village, within a district of the same status, to acquire a waste segregation plant.
It went even further to manage its water and sanitation sources by installing a fully functional biogas plant which ran on the faecal sludge. The biogas plant was then used to provide electricity to the entire community hall, which is celebrated by the village as the only indoor space for the locality.
Chinnanaur, today is role model for the rest of India. Through better sanitation, its residents found solutions for how to protect their environment, and in turn, its natural resources. Like Chinnanaur, many communities in India are reaping equally great rewards. The grassroots movement to protect nature and resources have picked up momentum, and millions have joined the cause.