Poor sanitation impacts human well-being and quality of life, and results in lost opportunities for education and employment. Poor sanitation systems, inadequate faecal sludge and septage management leads to the spread of human waste into waterbodies (rivers and lakes), hence polluting underground water resources, and adversely affecting human health.

In order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 6.2 on Sanitation and Hygiene, we need to work “on average four times faster”.

In 2020, a staggering 1.7 billion people reportedly did not have basic sanitation service globally, 4.2 billion people did not have access to safely managed sanitation service, and more than 494 million people practiced open defecation.

Since the launch of India’s flagship Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), about 109 million individual household latrines have been constructed in rural areas and 6.2 million toilets in urban areas.

Under SBM (Grameen), in addition to constructing toilets, facilities for water storage for handwashing and cleaning have been created. Under the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), about 99.6 per cent of the rural households with access to toilets, were reported to have water available in their toilets (2019-20).

Under SBM (Urban), all toilets were to be built in tandem with water supply arrangements of the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs). A unique aspect of the programme was the availability of water in toilets being checked during the ODF, ODF+, ODF++ and Water+ certification processes, and also during the annual Swachh Survekshan (SS) through third party inspections. The ODF+ Protocol (towards cleanliness and functionality of community and public toilets), ODF++ Protocol (for complete faecal sludge and septage management), and the Water+ Protocol (on wastewater treatment and its optimum reuse) were introduced by the Centre in 2018-19.

Microbial water quality in groundwater and water-borne diseases are linked with poor household sanitation in India.

Significant drop

Sanitation development in India has reportedly led to significant reduction in groundwater faecal coliform concentration during 2002–2017, according to the report on the impact of sanitation and socio-economy on groundwater pollution and human health published in nature.com. As per the National Health Profile of India -2019, there has been a significant decrease in the number of diarrhoeal deaths between 2001 and 2018. However, the goal of complete eradication of faecal-pollution, clean potable water from underground sources is yet to be achieved.

The ongoing SBM programme can be strengthened further if the effect on groundwater quality and human health conditions are quantified and used for policy decisions. Improperly designed septic tanks and disposal of faecal sludge seem to be a major source of faecal coliform in both surface and groundwater in India. Integration of services and synergy between these agencies for testing of groundwater quality will save a lot of time and resources.

The upcoming National Framework on the Safe Reuse of Treated Water of India links the existing and proposed policies on sanitation and faecal sludge management.

Climate-resilient sanitation technologies need to be developed so that septic tanks and sewerage systems are not affected by frequent floods, which helps in protecting the groundwater aquifers.

Sarkar is a Distinguished Fellow TERI, New Delhi; Bharat, is the Founder Director of Mu Gamma Consultants Pvt. Ltd