By Vikas Kataria
Everyone everywhere deserves access to safe drinking water and sanitation – at home, in their community, and at work; these are fundamental for human development and well-being, and one of the most effective measures of reducing poverty. However, as per the World Health Organization, in 2020, 1 in 4 people lacked access to safely managed drinking water in their homes; 3.6 billion lacked safely managed sanitation services; and 2.3 billion people lacked handwashing facilities with soap and water at home.
While WASH issues in India have been pertinent, government’s flagship initiatives, including Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA), have helped move the needle towards increasing access to safe sanitation, with sanitation economy growing to $63 billion this year. SBA’s multi-faceted approach also stirred its steadfast growth and increased community participation and awareness. Under Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), door-to-door garbage collection and disposal activities were initiated which helped in addressing the problem of garbage disposal. Subsequently, the launch of Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) in 2019 opened possibilities of providing access to a functional household-level tap connection to every household in rural India to safe and adequate drinking water which is unparalleled, both in terms of investment and ambition. Rural India has been fortunate to have substantial public investment through the government programmes like SBM and JJM. And by 2024 with ‘Har Ghar Jal’, India is likely to influence positively the global indicators on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) simply because of the scale of her population.
The availability of ‘Har Ghar Jal’, however, also increases the quantum of wastewater that is generated in our kitchens and bathrooms. Untreated wastewater poses a serious health hazard if left untreated, contaminating water sources or water bodies. This has led to a greater challenge of finding innovative means of treating and managing liquid waste in rural India.
Hygiene is an integral part of WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene); hygiene behaviours are extremely important to prevent diseases and death. Hygiene behaviours, such as handwashing, can help prevent diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections, two prominent causes of mortality among children under age five globally and in India. A staggering 48.2 million (38.4%) children less than five years of age in India are stunted, a condition that results from severe and persistent undernutrition. Inadequate hygiene contributes to undernutrition among young children, with half of all undernutrition cases associated with diarrhoea and infections resulting from unsafe water and sanitation, and unhygienic behaviours (WaterAid, 2016). Repeated diarrhoea in the first two years of life directly contributes to a quarter of all cases of stunting. Hand hygiene, particularly, handwashing with soap, is recognised as a highly cost-effective public health intervention, having the potential to significantly reduce the disease burden globally.
The pandemic also showed the importance of maintaining proper hygiene, among other things. At the very core of it is awareness and implementation along with the availability of infrastructure and resources. The development sector per se has contributed significantly to creating awareness in this regard.
While the Government policies created a much-needed push toward driving stakeholders on the agenda of sanitation and clean water access, the magnitude of WASH issues in the country can be addressed by adopting a three-fold approach.
First, adopting innovative approaches to waste management, sustainable water usage, and decentralised distribution and maintenance of water can create more sustainable WASH solutions on-ground. The key here is to ensure that such approaches or technology interventions are affordable, easy to implement and maintain and have the potential for scale-up. Swachh Bharat Mission-Grameen (SBM-G) launched by the government in 2015 has been able to make significant strides by providing underserved areas access to toilets and encouraging their sustainable use. Rural India is now self-declared open defecation free (ODF) with a reported 100% toilet coverage in all households.
Second, the power of collaboration can be leveraged to identify problem areas with specificity and can encourage organisations championing the cause of WASH to collaborate and explore focused solutions, locally.
Lastly, a clear focus on community engagement to ensure sustainability. Community engagement is essential in actualising a decentralised operation and maintenance model where communities have some sense of ownership, which also helps create long-term sustainable change.
There is still a long way to go in achieving SDG 6 (ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all) in India. Key stakeholders like the government, corporate sector, development sector, academicians, grassroots organizations, local government and individuals need to come together to transform the lives of people. As this year’s Global Handwashing Day theme suggests, let us “Unite for Universal Hand Hygiene!
(Vikas Kataria is the Director at Resource Mobilization & Communications, WaterAid India.)
Disclaimer: Views expressed in this article are personal.