Cleaning up our act

Pakistan faces a sanitary emergency in the lack of toilets for its population. Mohammad A. Qadeer looks at solutions

Cleaning up our act
Pakistanis who talk endlessly about politics recoil from the discussion if the topic turns to toilets and ways of disposing human waste. Their reluctance to countenance the problems of open defecation (relieving oneself in fields and around bushes) and dirty latrines is not just squeamishness about feces. It also has something to do with the narrative of the independence movement. Mahatama Gandhi’s insistence on the cleaning of latrines has long been viewed as his Hindu ‘fetish’. Muslims were presumed to be intrinsically ‘pure’ and free from such preoccupations. Yet the indignity of the non-existence or inadequate latrines does not spare Pakistanis.

The basic need for a toilet is not met for about 40 million (22% of the population) people in Pakistan. That is the estimate of open defecation in Pakistan by the WHO/UNICEF. In the relatively developed province of Punjab, about a quarter of the rural population resorts to open defecation as per the Punjab Bureau of Statistics’ sample survey called MICS 2014.

The southern Punjab region has the highest rates of open defecation, the districts of Rajanpur at 49%, Muzaffargarh at 43%, and D.G.Khan at 39% stood out but even the urbanised district of Multan had 20% of its population defecating in the open. On the outskirts of Lahore, in Kasur district, 10% of the population was defecating in the open. The conditions in rural Sindh, Balochistan and the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces could only be worse, though their survey results are not presented on the web to yield such estimates.
The basic need for a toilet is not met for about 40 million people (22% of the population)

Open defecation induces shame, inconvenience and unsanitary conditions. But those who have access to latrines are also not entirely spared the sight and smell of feces flowing in open drains and spilling over streets. Again the Punjab’s survey indicates that only 21% of latrines in the Punjab are connected with piped sewers, the urban areas having about 56% and the rural only 4%. The most common form of effluent disposal is in septic and holding tanks (44%), which empty into drains, streets and fields.

The flush toilets in the DHAs, Bahria Towns and Gulshans of Pakistani cities make human waste disappear, but its invisibility is only a facade. Their sewerage is dumped in rivers, streams and fields or collects in sewerage ponds on the outskirts. The neglect and poor design of toilets, leaky pipes and untreated disposal of sewerage comes to bite back as pervasive pollution and endemic diseases, not to speak of filthy villages and cities. It is a problem that should be on the top of the developmental agenda of the nation, but is almost unacknowledged.

Notice outside a public toilet in Pakistan - Photo courtesy -
Notice outside a public toilet in Pakistan - Photo courtesy -

India our neighbor, facing similar problems, has launched a national program, Clean India Mission, to provide toilets at home for all by 2019, aiming to eliminate open defecation. Undoubtedly it has been a challenging goal. People’s lifelong habits and beliefs intertwined with the caste roles are holding back the success of the program. Yet it is proceeding with installing 5-6 million toilets in people’s homes every year.

Sanitation is a collective good, which is indivisible. To have it for some cannot be separated from having it for all. In Pakistan, the upper and middle classes who have flush toilets and piped sewers are not immune from the environmental pollution and health-hazards of open defecation and poorly built latrines.

There are three types of programs that have to be implemented all across the country in parallel to meet national needs for sustainable and affordable sanitation.

First, a massive program of building public toilets in markets, bus stations and public places in big cities and small towns is needed. Toilets are urgently needed for shoppers, visitors, workers, rickshaw drivers and store owners, who now have to bear the discomfort of either holding back on calls of nature or the indignity of relieving themselves shamefully along walls and behind bushes. This form of open defection goes unrecognized. Also a high proportion of schools and other public institutions have either no or non-functioning latrines. Building and managing toilets in these institutions is another component of the toilets building program.

Public toilets must be clean, culturally appropriate and well maintained. They should be set up as small business franchises with regulated fees for use, and private owners or operators to manage the facilities. The governments should work with traders’ associations and union councils by providing public lands and recoverable grants to build such facilities in their areas.

The second type of program should aim at improving and upgrading private latrines that are either just pits in the ground or are connected to open drains and holding tanks. According to the MICS survey (referred above), in the Punjab for which data are available, about 40% of urban and 56% of rural house latrines were unlined pits, emptying in drains and septic tanks, which in turn spread the sewerage in fields and rivers. Those connected to sewer pipes do not fare much better.

This situation requires redesigning latrines with new technologies that biologically decompose wastes or convert them into bio-ash on site, eliminating the need for sewers.

National and provincial governments should give subsidies, incentives and technical and material support to households to upgrade their latrines to the on-site composting or solar-treated toilets, which dispose human waste by turning it into fertilising ash to be harmlessly removed periodically. Such programs should be community based and focused on assisting households in improving their toilets with culturally appropriate designs.

The third level of public programs should aim to transform the technology of toilets. They should bring into everyday use the composting, biological fermentation and solar treatment technologies for the on-site disposal of human waste by killing pathogens and drastically reducing the volume of removable residue. The technologies of biological decomposition of waste have been developed to the point of being available in stores and online. These are being promoted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNEP in their drive for the sustainable environment.

This short article is not suitable for a detailed description of the composting/solar burning or other technologies. The ReinventToilet initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, has awarded three prizes to inventors of the ‘next generation’ of toilets based on such technologies. UNICEF and the World Health Organisation also have helped develop similar prototypes . There is a considerable push to promote these technologies in both the developed and developing countries.

The task of changing and upgrading the technology of toilets in Pakistan has to begin with the development of prototypes and their commercialisation. National scientific institutions and research and development organizations such as PCSIR, CWHR, PCRET and COMSATS should be assigned to evaluate and adapt available new technologies of toilet designs to come up with workable models.

Pakistan neither has the water nor the capital to build flush sewers and sewerage treatment facilities for the whole population. The composting and solar treated decomposition of human waste promises to fulfill needs:  off-pipe, without the investment of trillions of rupees in sewer systems, while saving water.

The program of transforming toilets and installing sustainable technologies should begin from the elite’s developments such as DHAs etc. Starting from upper income households, new toilet technologies will gain acceptability as well as prestige. It will help stimulate the demand among poorer households as the convenience and benefits become evident.

The building and planning standards should be revised to make it compulsory for every new development - residential or commercial - to dispose their toilet waste on site. These measures combined with commercialisation of toilet technologies and subsidising poor households for installing new types of toilets will transform Pakistan. It will be a healthier, economical and pollution-free habitat, saving water and money. We may thus truthfully claim Muslim purity.

Mohammad Qadeer is Professor Emeritus of urban planning at Queen’s University, Canada

Mohammad Qadeer’s recent book, Lahore In The 21st Century, has been published for Pakistan by Vanguard Books.