Improving Urban Sanitation

Over 50% of Indians don’t have access to a toilet, and India accounts for 59% of the 1.1 billion people who defecate in the open worldwide. This problem is concentrated in India’s urban slums, where populations have tripled in the last three decades, intensifying the strain on already insufficient urban resources. Dasra’s report, Squatting Rights, focuses on urban sanitation systems in India, and demonstrates how strategic philanthropic funding can go a long way in providing the urban poor with access to improved sanitation and ensuring healthy, prosperous cities.
The problem of poor sanitation infrastructure in urban slums has many components:
  • Health: Of India's 2.3 million annual deaths among children aged under five years, about 334,000 are attributable to diarrheal diseases that improved sanitation can easily prevent.
  • Education: In 2014, 2 out of 5 schools in India lacked separate toilets for boys and girls. According to one study, this lack contributed to 23% of girls surveyed dropping out of school on reaching puberty.
  • Productivity: Illnesses caused by lack of sanitation result in loss of productive potential for not only those afflicted, but also other members of the family, especially women, who are compelled to take care of the unwell.
  • Gendered Impact: Women in urban slums wait for nightfall to defecate in order to find privacy and protection from harassment. On average, women and girls in Indian cities hold their bladders for 13 hours a day, leaving them at risk of urinary and reproductive tract infections.
Investing in sanitation has proven to have a high return on investment:
  • Every USD 1 spent on better sanitation delivers an average of USD 5 in social, health and economic benefits.
  • Better sanitation will avert 45% of negative health effects.
  • Improving hygiene through activities such as hand-washing at critical times can reduce morbidity due to diarrhea by 44%.
  • Building toilets in schools increased attendance by 11%.   
Dasra has identified five key focus areas to provide universal urban sanitation in India:
  • Develop a gendered approach: Sanitation projects designed with full participation from women are 5-7 times more successful than those that focus only on men. It is vital to acknowledge the distinct role of men and women and involve them both as change agents for improved sanitation.
  • Improve hygiene: The most affordable, accessible and effective way to promote hygiene is by educating communities about the life-saving potential of simple cleanliness, and its role in helping populations realize the full return on infrastructure investments.
  • Foster champions within government: Within all levels of government, it is important to identify and foster champions for sanitation, who will enable favourable policy environments, cut through red tape and drive the sanitation agenda to ensure long-term, large-scale impact.
  • Nurture community ownership: Universal sanitation in India remains elusive due to the government’s traditional supply-driven approach that often neglects the requirements of the communities being served. There is a need to move away from this top-down method to a community-led approach.
  • Customize solutions and create standards: It is crucial to consider the unique features of different slums and communities and customize interventions accordingly. It is equally important to standardize scalable aspects of the sanitation chain and leverage existing sector knowledge to avoid duplication of effort, save time and contribute to scale.
The focus areas are manifested on the ground through the following interventions undertaken by non-profit organizations:
  • Enabling behavior change for hygiene education to raise people’s awareness of why and how to improve their hygiene behavior in order to improve their health.
  • Training stakeholders to foster champions among communities, civil society and local government to drive the sanitation agenda.
  • Influencing the government as it is best placed to provide effective urban sanitation services at scale, through the provision of conducive policy and legal frameworks, finance, skilled human capital and other resources.
  • Creating knowledge and gathering data on the status of sanitation infrastructure at various levels: slum, city, state, in order to help government and other stakeholders make informed decisions, better targeted at specific demographics.
  • Mobilizing and organizing communities in order to generate demand for sanitation. Non-profits play a pivotal role in facilitating demand generation and willingness to pay for sanitation in a target community, preparing the path for community ownership over toilet facilities.
  • Adapting appropriate hardware, such as toilets and sewage management systems through research, development and adaptation of technological options and management models in urban sanitation – this results in customized and locally contextual solutions.
  • Providing flexible financing for sanitation and water projects, often to those who would typically be excluded from access. These include, for example, loans to build a household or community toilet, or for upgrading existing facilities, or for getting a water connection.
  • Fund high-impact organizations that have been identified by Dasra after an assessment of over 150 organizations.
  • Contact one of these organizations to explore opportunities to partner.
  • Share this page with people you know to direct more support to the cause.