Bridging the Sanitation Divide

There has been considerable attention on new sanitation technologies the past few years, due at least in some part to the efforts of funding organizations like The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and their focus on “reinventing the toilet”. The thinking behind such is that toilet technology and sewerage systems tasked with managing and treating waste are largely unchanged over the past 100 years, and there is an ever-increasing need to design interventions less reliant on water and other utilities than current options. If you take the Gates Foundation’s efforts as a case study, it’s remarkable to see the manifold ways in which engineers and designers have explored innovation in the sanitation space. And how absolutely disconnected many of these endeavors are from the ground realities of the communities that these new technologies are intended to serve, particularly in India.

It is undeniable that there is a need for innovation in India’s sanitation sector. Considering over half the population is forced to open-defecate due to a lack of adequate and safe options, clearly the manner in which sanitation programs are designed, implemented, and maintained is not working; the entire ecosystem needs to be revisited and rebooted. However, doing so needs to take into consideration the needs of end-users, the capacity of the implementers, and with an understanding of the challenges that have led to, and exacerbated, India’s sanitation crisis. Otherwise it is just another case of the path to hell being paved with good intentions: failed initiatives cost far more than just a funder’s investment; countless lives are lost to this quagmire every day.

Some of the projects that competed in the “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge” were failures right from the start for a multitude of reasons: whether through the incorporation of implausible technologies, lacking consideration for the spatial constraints endemic to urban settings most in need of sanitation interventions, or with utter disregard for the sociocultural drivers that lead to some users preferring open-defecation, most specifically by converting waste into fertilizer and expecting willingness from end-users to handle such.

Beyond this, there were many entrants that seemingly designed their systems with the expectation that there would be individuals with the technological capacity to ensure any mechanical breakdown can and will be addressed. This is naive to say the least. There is an anecdote out of Nepal in which a small village had numerous water taps, some right next to each other. When asked why there were so many dysfunctional taps, locals said that it was easier to find an organization willing to build a brand new well and pump than it was to find a plumber. Good intentions, bad results.

Some of the most interesting and successful offerings seeking to reimagine the toilet were the most low-tech. American Standard’s SaTo stands out as it is remarkably simple and reflects an understanding of end-user constraints and behavior. By adapting a standard toilet pan by adding a trap seal that operates with minimal water (and an amount relative to what individuals typically use for anal cleansing and flushing), they created an extremely low-cost intervention that will help keep communities safe and healthy. Clearly the product resonated with users, too, as hundreds of thousands of them were sold in Bangladesh.

At Quicksand, we developed the community sanitation initiative Project Sammaan after studying the behavior and habits of those living in India’s urban slums over an entire year. The observations made over this time led to actionable insights regarding improvements to the community sanitation ecosystem, and a deeper understanding of the drivers of end-users’ perceptions and attitudes around sanitation. Based on these insights, we set about designing a system that would address the shortcomings of existing approaches that were contributing to dysfunctional facilities, lower toilet usage, and the resultant practice of open-defecation.

The design process for Sammaan lasted over half a year and included multiple community engagement activities that helped validate (or invalidate) some of the assumptions we made. We co-created and designed alongside individuals that would benefit from the initiative, allowing their inputs to translate into tangible, brick-and-mortar realities. This can be found not only in the amenities offered by the Sammaan facilities (e.g., menstrual waste incinerators, clothes-washing stations, child potties) but also in more subtle design features such as increased natural lighting and ventilation. Most importantly, though, is the belief that this inclusive design approach will help ensure buy-in by the beneficiaries: we are not forcing something onto a community, but building it together.

We believe that this human-centered design approach is an absolute must if any appreciable difference in India’s sanitation crisis is to be made in the immediate future. Above and beyond engaging with the end-users to factor in their inputs and to account for their perceptions and habits in designing a product or service, one must also have an intimate understanding of the context that drives their views and behaviors. One organization we met with is designing a single sanitation facility that can accommodate tens of thousands of users. When asked why such scale for an individual facility, they cited Mumbai’s infamous Dharavi slum and its population of nearly one million residents as motivation, adding that their intervention would be but a small drop in the bucket. This is of course true if looking at the intervention purely by the numbers. However, such logic betrays a lack of understanding of the spatial constraints and density of population in the slum, or any slum for that matter.

Understanding an individual’s perceptions of reality and the drivers behind them provides the insights necessary to effectively deploy any product or service and will help ensure early adoption as well as long-term applicability and use. This elucidation is only possible through a direct, honest engagement with the target audience one is working for or with. It is precisely this approach that is often undervalued or avoided altogether when a foreign entity attempts to intervene or operate in a new and different context. When this occurs in the development space, it is far more tragic as the cost of ineffective programs and projects is in human lives and not just lost investments.

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