The challenges of sustainability: the story of a toilet block

We’re in Delhi reviewing one of Save the Children’s signature programmes – Stop Diarrhoea Initiative.

Every year, half a million children under the age of five die from diarrhoea. 42% of these deaths occur in Nigeria and India.

Save the Children’s Stop Diarrhoea Initiative aims to reduce mortality and morbidity in both these countries through a four-year programme. We’re implementing a 7-point plan developed by the World Health Organization and UNICEF that includes ensuring access to safe water, raising awareness of household and community sanitation and hygiene, promoting exclusive breastfeeding, and providing rehydration salts and zinc when diarrhoea occurs.

In India the initiative spans four states. As it enters its final year, we’re keen to make sure that all the educational materials, training and infrastructural work is sustainable and that the community and local partners continue working together.

Community negotiations

Bhanwar Singh is a community of around 1,800 households – a slum area of Delhi where dwellings are crowded and roads are not wide enough for cars to drive through. Households have no toilets or space to set them up, and culturally many people are against having a toilet in their home as they believe it will be unclean.

Slum areas in Delhi like Bhanwar Singh face three challenges in tackling diarrhoea:

  • a lack of safe drinking water
  • poor sanitation and hygiene
  • a lack of systematic garbage disposal.

Open defecation was common in Bhanwar Singh, and was a cause of serious illness.

The programme started talking to the community over a year ago to discuss how best to improve sanitation. A piece of land on one side of the slum was identified to host a toilet block. But change brought resistance – some people wanted to keep this land clear for more houses or as a parking area.

In the end, through working with the community to explain the benefits of setting up a toilet block in improving the sanitary conditions of the community, they agreed.

The first users

To date, 40 cubicles have been built – with 40 more planned. They’re split between toilets for men and women, and there’s even a child friendly section.

Initially, users were asked to pay a small fee. But that proved to be a deterrent. As soon as the fee was removed, the number of daily users almost doubled from an initial figure of 300. It’s since gone up to a daily average of 1,100 users.

Two guardians are at the block at all times, making sure that the toilets are kept clean, that there’s always soap and that the toilet block is safe. A management group is responsible for cleaning and maintenance, and is being given training on how the project can be made sustainable.

The price of sustainability

But building the toilet block is the easy bit. Making it self-sustaining both financially and environmentally is more challenging.

For the toilet block to fund itself, the plan is to set up two large biodigesters. All the sewage from the toilets will be processed biologically and made safe so it can be sold as manure. Water used in sinks and showers will be taken through a water treatment system, so it can be reused for cleaning and operating the flushing system.

What next?

Land has been cleared to start digging the site for the biodigestor, and the government has pledged to continue supporting the initiative after the Save the Children’s programme ends in 2019. In the coming months, as the building continues, the community management group will take over the day-to-day running of the area and start looking into the market opportunities around selling of manure.

It’s at that point that the final balance between running costs and income generation will be known. Additional activities may need to be sought to make up any projected shortfall.

The group is already working on ways to make sure the initiative can sustain itself – for instance, by encouraging community members to bring biodegradable waste to the biodigestor, increasing outputs and profit.

That could make it possible to have only a very low user contribution, allowing the community to continue to use the toilet block in safety – and to sustain improvements in sanitation and health.

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