Explained: Why India must make human waste treatment a viable business proposition

Policy makers, planners, the private sector, innovators, researchers and others need to create a sustainable ecosystem for sanitation.

In 2014, the Centre launched the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) with an aim to eradicate open defecation by 2019.

By Andrea Stowell & Nutan Zarapkar

It was World Toilet Day recently, and India made a bold statement by making sanitation a national issue. This country is projected to have an additional 300 million new urban residents by 2050. This is cause for alarm. Policy makers, planners, the private sector, innovators, researchers and others need to create a sustainable ecosystem for sanitation.

In 2014, the Centre launched the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) with an aim to eradicate open defecation by 2019. Since then, the number of people practising open defecation has decreased significantly with 1,678 cities declared open defecation free at the end of 2017. But, in order to further strengthen its mission of universal sanitation, India now needs to make human waste treatment a sustainable business proposition. This is also an important step to helping India achieve the sixth Sustainable Development Goal—sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

A sustainable sanitation ecosystem includes not only access to toilets, but also effective evacuation, transport, and treatment of waste along with reuse or responsible disposal of the treated product. SBM’s focus has been on improving access to toilets, however, the same focus has not been given to management beyond the toilet. As a result, human waste largely goes untreated and ends up in the environment, posing significant threat to water sources and human health.

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ODF++, an augmentation of the original SBM, aims to address human waste management by expanding city aims to include safe containment, processing, and disposal. SBM++ needs to be scaled up and fully integrated into sanitation solutions. This will require a supportive regulatory and policy framework that includes requirements for desludging, transport of waste to treatment plants, and environmentally sound treatment, reuse and disposal. In addition, there is a need for investment and market incentives to spur innovation around effective solutions.

There is great opportunity despite the many challenges facing this sector. The size of India’s sanitation economy is $32 billion per year. This market is set to double to an estimated $62 billion per year by 2021. Further, there is a largely untapped market for converting waste into valuable byproducts.

So, what is stopping India from investing in innovative solutions to sustainably manage human waste and capture the full value of byproducts?
Billions of dollars are required to build, operate and maintain piped sewerage networks and treatment plants, in addition to needing water for flushing and transporting the waste. There is a cheaper way. Non-sewered sanitation solutions are known to be considerably less expensive than sewered solutions and work with existing waste collection infrastructure. Furthermore, novel, transformative sanitation technologies are being developed that do not require connection to a sewerage network, which were recently on display at the Reinvented Toilet Expo in Beijing, China. Many of these technologies treat and reuse flush water on-site and require little to no grid electricity or water for operations.

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Almost 1.75 million tonnes of human waste is generated in India every day. When treated correctly, human waste can be converted into useful byproducts, including fuel, fertiliser, and irrigation water. The human waste management sector also has the potential to create jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities. For instance, microenterprises could be set up to collect and transport waste and various entities could invest in waste treatment or waste-to-energy plants, capturing the value of byproducts.

There is a need for public, private and other funders to invest in innovative sanitation solutions along the waste management continuum to bridge the gap between the challenges and opportunities. While the GoI has already taken signficant steps towards improving sanitation, it can play an even greater role in advancing innovative solutions . Specifically, the GoI should consider taking additional actions such as adopting the new international standard for non-sewered sanitation systems (ISO 30500); helping to de-risk new technologies through supported pilot projects; rolling out policy incentives for creating useful byproducts from human waste; and developing policies to regularise waste collection and transport to ensure consistent flow of material to new treatment plants. Doing so will help to de-risk the market for private sector players and usher in a new era of sanitation solutions in India.

-Stowell is director, Sanitation Technology Platform, RTI International and Zarapkar is head (Water, Sanitation & Hygiene), RTI International India

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