Even though I have designed and implemented a workable and environmentally sustainable water supply and sanitation system in our office in the city of Indore and also studied this problem in detail as part of my Phd, I had never grappled with the problem at a larger scale and so was not aware of the various practical intricacies involved in its solution especially in rural areas. An opportunity arose this year when it was decided to construct toilets and bathrooms in the Rani Kajal Jeevan Shala residential school for Adivasi boys and girls that our organisation runs in the village of Kakrana on the banks of the River Narmada in Alirajpur district of Madhya Pradesh. There were only three toilets for the girls and women on the campus earlier but given the huge adverse health effects of open defecation in close proximity to the school by more than a hundred boys and men it was decided to construct fifteen bathrooms and fifteen toilets. Detailed below is the saga of the successful implementation of this WSS project and how it has been an immense learning exercise for all those involved, including a so called expert like I!!!
The biggest problem with toilets in rural areas that is generally brushed under the carpet and overlooked is water supply. Toilets across the country are being built in the hundreds of thousands since the clarion call given by Modi but in most of these, there is either no or inadequate provision for water supply. Consequently, toilets across the country and especially public toilets, stink to high heaven and most private toilets built in rural homes remain unused. In rural areas where households have to bring water from a distance from tanks, streams, public wells or hand pumps for their drinking and cooking use, it requires great motivation on their part to get say fifteen more buckets or so for a five member household for bathing, flushing and keeping the toilets and bathrooms clean instead of bathing and defecating in the open. Even if they were to get these fifteen buckets of water, it would give rise to the problem of disposal of the waste water of almost equal proportions. Dry pit latrines without proper treatment of the sewage, which are promoted by policy makers across the world, as a consequence, to get round the high cost implications of providing adequate water supply to the toilets and treating the waste water properly, give rise to both a foul stench and contamination of the ground and surface water. Thus, Modi's Clean India campaign has mostly led to the construction of stinking toilets which are either not being used or if used are then contributing to greater pollution of the ground water than in the case of open defecation.
The enormity of this problem was brought home to us in the construction of fifteen pairs of toilets and bathrooms in the Rani Kajal Jeevan Shala in Kakrana in two blocks of ten and five units for boys and girls respectively as shown below.
The quality of construction of the toilets and bathrooms was fairly good with brick and cement mortar, vitrified tiles, UPVC pipes and brass and ceramic fittings as shown in the picture below.
The campus has a hand pump in which there is inserted a two phase submersible pump of one horsepower (HP). Initially after the toilets and bathrooms were constructed they were fitted with two numbers of one thousand litre tanks in addition to the one thousand litre tank that was already there for the three toilets built earlier. These tanks were connected to the submersible pump. However, this total of three thousand litres of water supply proved totally inadequate for servicing fifteen bathrooms and eighteen toilets. The tanks would empty out within a few minutes during the morning hours of heavy use and then filling them up again and again was a big problem. Later during the day the tanks would remain empty and so the children would have to cart water in buckets from the handpump to the toilets over a distance of over a hundred metres which is a labourious exercise. Given this water shortage the toilets began to stink badly and became a potential health hazard. Moreover, the three septic tanks for treating the sewage were also improperly designed and the outflow from them was collecting near the tanks and creating a stinking pool of dirty water that was contaminating both surface and ground water. One of the septic tanks had even cracked due to improper design and construction that left one of the brick walls of the tank exposed without a retaining support, as a result of an inadequate understanding of the topography and soil quality of the area on the part of the mason who constructed it, adding to the problems.
To rectify the situation it was decided to build a ten thousand litre concrete tank on top of the highest hillock in the campus so as to provide enough water storage for the present and future needs of the school at all points as shown in the picture below.
Given the uncertainty of electric supply we installed a 5 HP diesel generator and this improved the delivery of water by the pump but this was an expensive option that could be adopted only in emergencies when there was no electricity supply at all due to load shedding and not regularly. To solve this problem it was decided to lift water from an open well shown below that was there in the campus which was being used only for irrigating the two vegetable farms in the campus. The submersible pump in the hand pump was to be used henceforth only for drinking water purposes.
The bigger problem was regarding the disposal and reuse of waste water. Huge amounts of waste water were being generated from the bathrooms and toilets and these were being released untreated into the surface and ground near the septic tanks and were polluting the water sources of the school and also other farmers nearby in the village. First the cracked septic tank was repaired with reinforcement and supported by a retaining wall to ensure that it did not crack again as shown below.
Then a water treatment system was put in place to clean the water flowing out of the septic tanks. This consisted of plastic 200 litre drums laid horizontally filled successively with brick crush, sand and charcoal as shown below. Though the use of these three purifiers is well established, it is the first time in India that they have been put into a horizontal drum assembly to reduce the costs involved in water treatment. Since space is not a constraint, this is a very cheap and effective system.
The water from the septic tanks enters this system of tanks and gets purified while passing through them to reach a Biological Oxygen Demand level less than the 30 mg/litre value for release into the soil prescribed by the Central Public Health and Environmental Health Organisation. However, instead of releasing this water into the soil it is being collected in a tank and recycled to flush the toilets thus saving considerably on the use of potable water for this purpose as shown below. The waste water consequently flows in a closed loop repeatedly after being treated. The excess treated waste water is used for gardening and plantation purposes. There is a vigrorous soil and water conservation and plantation exercise going on in the school to improve both water and biomass availability so as to eventually make the campus energy sufficient also.
Incidentally this is a decentralised system and so the cost is comparatively low. If the same system were to be designed for the whole village of Kakrana then the cost would go up considerably because centralisation in the case of WSS leads to higher per unit costs. This is in fact the main reason why in metropolitan cities like Mumbai and Delhi water supply is inadequate and waste water is mostly being released untreated into the soil and water bodies resulting in these cities having stinking rivers that are biologically dead flowing through them. So the only way to a clean India is to implement decentralised WSS systems combined with water harvesting like the one in Kakrana not only in rural areas but also in the cities and towns.