Water and sanitation is one of the most basic needs in any human settlement. Despite that, according to UN statistics, today over 2.5 billion people lack access to sanitation and at least 780 million people lack access to safe drinking water. Global estimates of economic losses from the lack of access to water and sanitation are estimated at US$260 billion every year. In India alone, 638 million (54% of the population) lack access to basic sanitation costing the state around 5% of its GDP in health related costs.
The lack of water and sanitation is one of the defining characteristics of urban informal settlements which are often disconnected, on marginal and / or peripheral land. One such place is Savda Ghevra (SG), Delhi, home to more than 46,000 previous slum dwellers moved there by the state during one of the most aggressive slum clearance drives which saw over million citizens displaced to peripheral working class suburbs. Savda Ghevra is a resettlement colony where each family is given a plot, where they built their own home with little to no state assistance. There is electricity but there is no water and no sewerage. The community toilet complexes that were built are mostly not functioning and are grossly inadequate. The result is that 88% of the population defecates in the open, a practice which is at best humiliating and at worst dangerous both in terms of the health risks and particularly for women through the increased threat of rape and molestation.
The Potty Project is an equitable sanitation system that enables 322 households to retrofit toilets to their homes. Home toilets are a safe, healthy, dignified and preferred sanitation option, especially for women and young girls. The toilets are connected through common shallow sewers to a septic tank linked to a simplified decentralized treatment system that treats the effluent before discharge and re-uses it exhibiting a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ solution which turns waste into profit. The innovation has not been in the delivery of the infrastructure but in the way we have retrofitted the system and engaged with the community. Because no house is alike marrying the technology to the individual needs of each household has required lots of small detailing and careful consideration of what exists and making that better. Much of this has happened by having street level meetings and walking around the site with engineers. The best analogy to describe the project is a charm bracelet of ideas/technologies … each charm on its own is not special; it is the combination of all that makes the project unique.
Given the complexity of retrofitting sanitation The Potty Project uses a “whole-systems” approach which has 6 main aspects:
- Assisting in the design and implementation of in-house toilets;
- Designing and planning for decentralized sewers and a septic tank to manage the effluent;
- Designing and planning an on-site treatment in the form of micro-DEWATS;
- House upgrades to accommodate the new toilet and connection to sewer system;
- Community mobilization to ensure the viability, replicability and sustainability of the project; and finally
- Access to finances to facilitate these investments.
The project links together the various elements of the sanitation value chain – home toilets, drainage, conveyance and treatment systems, recycling, and reuse – to the advantage of poor households.
The project began during community workshops run by CURE (Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence), a local development NGO and Julia King a PhD student researching housing in the area in 2010. Sanitation was the issue of primary concerns to the residents. The team began thinking about what kind of solutions were possible technically, socially and economically. This involved consulting with the state, engineers, planners but also with the community. A process that required not only galvanizing them into forming community structures such as the operation and maintenance (O&M) team, but getting the government on board and finding funds for the pilot project.
The project is led by Dr. Renu Khosla the Director of CURE supported by Julia King acting as project architect (including concept design) and a whole team of community workers in Savda Ghevra managed by Siddharth Pandey, CURE’s programme coordinator of the on-going livelihood development scheme in Savda Ghevra.
Today most sanitation initiatives that are receiving awards and accolades are doing great work but are mostly community complexes and not in-house systems. The aspiration of this project is to showcase a replicable and low cost solution that brings sanitation to even the poorest of households in high density, informal urban settlements. Replication requires that the approach be technically suitable, can be operated and maintained over extended periods of time, be socially acceptable, and affordable by the recipient community. A project of this scale - working with existing houses - has not been tried before and the pilot project in Sava Ghevra is the first of its kind.
The intention was always to provide a blue print for a new way of thinking outside of conventional practice. The fact that the government has supported and given permission for the project to go ahead is a fantastic outcome of this process. Looking forward the government would like to scale up this initiative that works at a small cluster to start thinking about how this can be applied at a masterplan scale.
Most importantly the objective was to create a healthier built environment whilst engendering social collaboration and cohesion. The result has been positive as the residents have empowered themselves socially and politically – crafted a civic order - by being active participants in the process of making; a process characterized by sharing and incremental improvements, additions, and developments. These opportunities for engagement which are lost in large scale, one-stop highly capitalised projects are more readily available during incremental change and so should be celebrated.
Community processes formed the spine of the project using participatory learning and action tools for social and community mapping, needs prioritization, focus groups, etc. Community based processes take time to mature and vary by a community’s willingness and level of cohesion. By delivering what the community cannot do by themselves – sewerage – and creating an open system for customization at the household level the settlement can transform from the bottom up and not get caught into patronage. This engagement was achieved by not imposing ideas but working with the community. The project supported local collective organization as a key guiding principles in both design and execution
During early design stages this involved making models and drawings which explained the technology. As the design developed and the community structures were formed the team started having open days in the local office showing the design and communicating the challenges the team were facing. Such transparency was important to keep the community motivated over what was a long period of time between conception and execution. This work was supported by constant survey work, house-to-house interviews and street level meetings.
CURE, led by Julia, working in partnership with skilled engineers provided on-site training to the various groups engaged with not only the execution of the sanitation infrastructure but also the subsequent housing economy boosted by the arrival of sewerage. Training covered construction techniques including the appropriate systems for retrofitting sanitation and other service infrastructure to existing homes and the engineering principles behind house upgrades (load bearing columns, walls and roofs for another floor).
One of the best outcomes from this process has been a Residents Welfare Association (RWA) formed on the back of the energy galvanized by The Potty Project. The RWA, the first of its kind, is a body which is formally recognised by the state as an effective link between the community and local government. The RWA is a mechanism to reconstitute citizenship and is an advocacy tool for the community, at first via the NGO - CURE - and after through the RWA, to deal and negotiate with the state.
The principal stakeholders are the residents of the 322 households that now have access to sewerage so they can build a toilet in their homes. The residents are represented by a series of street leaders who liaise between the NGO and the community. In addition, the NGO and the street leaders are supported by an O&M team composed of elected members from the community. The O&M team was trained in the procurement process and build through to the long term operation and maintenance of the infrastructure. Households connecting into the system pay a small fee which supports and finances the O&M team; engendering local responsibility and accountability.
The principal actor in this project is the NGO CURE, a not-for-profit organizationwith a vision to create an enabling environment for pro-poor urban and social policy through inclusive planning and governance, multi stakeholder partnerships, institutional capacity building and urban reform. CURE follows a participatory approach to working with communities. It engages, mobilizes and organizes people to contribute to planning, implementation and oversight of development activities. This process builds trust that develops over time. Building such trust has been critical for the success of activities in SG. It is also where the biggest challenges lie. By involving the community and not imposing upon them ideas means that while there is greater ownership locally, there is also a constant adjustment that is inbuilt into the process which requires real time modifications and changes to ideas and designs.
Julia King, who has pushed the design from conception through to completion, is an architect, urban researcher and PhD candidate at London Metropolitan University on a full scholarship. Her work has been featured in numerous publications,was recognized in the ‘Next Generation’ category for a Holcim Award an international competition that recognizes innovative projects and future-oriented concepts and was recently include in ICON magazines ‘Future 50’ list “a snap shot of 50 young designers and architects (who) are pushing the boundaries of their disciplines and trying to change the world”.
The funding for the project has come from the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust (SDTT), one of the oldest, non-sectarian philanthropic organizations in India, established in 1932 with the prime purpose of encouraging learning and research in the country, of meeting costs of relief during crises and calamities and of carrying out worthwhile charitable activities. The Trust’s vision of constructive philanthropy has been sensitive to the fast-growing needs of a developing nation, while the work initiated by it holds contemporary relevance as it continues to support innovative enterprises in development.
The Delhi Shelter Board, Delhi Water Board and East Delhi Municipal Corporation have all been included in the process as the land owning and state agencies responsible for the development of SG. Looking forward the team would like to prompt a change in government policy for slum development. The present policy environment is supportive of in-situ slum upgrading with projects like this that demonstrate the success of alternative approaches.
The primary benefit of this project is the delivery of affordable, safe, and healthy access to sanitation. The health benefits of this are almost immeasurable. Diarrhea kills more people than any other disease and the lack of access to a simple toilet is behind this. The arrival of sanitation to SG will, without a doubt, drastically and positively change lives.
However, The Potty Project isn’t just about pipes it is a process that talks directly to the anatomy of domestic and public culture.The arrival of sanitation triggers a positive housing economy as residents seek to invest in their homes with the addition of a toilet. This economy needs to be supported by technical skills and access to credit to fund upgrades. In order to support this CURE is looking to expand their Livelihood Revolving Fund (LRF), capitalised out of its grant funds in SG, to lend money at low interest to microenterprise groups for business operations. A parallel initiative is ‘Build Smart’ where loans are offered at affordable rates to upgrade homes; with designs for toilets included as part of The Potty Project deliverables. Julia has run open design sessions offering a free consulting service to residents looking to build a toilet in their homes working with local contractors and laborers.
Other benefits can be seen by the community cohesion and structures (formal and informal) that have been formed around the issue of sanitation.This practice builds a certain kind of civic and even political fortitude and commitment to the collective good. In which the “politics of shit” is turned on its head: humiliation and victimization are transformed into exercises in technical capacity and self-dignification.
The metrics used to track the impact of the project with before-after impact assessment will be measured using the following key indicators which form part of on-going survey work in the area using household surveys, community and GIS mapping and qualitative assessments using participatory tools:
1. Improved family health, especially of women and girls. This will be evident from the reduction in family health care costs, days lost to illness (for school children and working members) from diarrheal diseases, better hygiene behavior such as hand washing, improved menstrual hygiene and increased weight among children below 5 years.
2. Improved productivity and family wealth creation. This shall happen from time saved in open defecation or waiting at common toilets; more women in home based occupations/other livelihoods with cleaner home spaces and improved production quality, increases in household savings and asset ownership.
3. Increased self-investment in housing upgrades by people. Toilets are recognized as key upgrading trigger with survey work measuring incremental improvements to housing and the number of toilets built.
4. Environmental Impacts from reduction in open defecation while difficult to isolate will be measured through water tests of shallow sources near defecation sites and ground sources.
Behavior and social change shall be measured through observations, photographic evidence, and interviews will identify metrics such as:
- Perception of safety, especially among women and young girls from a reduction in incidence of harassment in open defecation.
- Community cohesion from the ability of the community to achieve consensus on other community issues.
Winning the prize will be a platform to show case the project both as a process and its outcomes, celebrating the amazing work of the community but will also serve as a platform to open dialogues for taking this model elsewhere.
If The Potty Project wins, the team will use this platform to create a film about the project and a manual so that the lessons learned can contribute towards a general discourse on peripheral, low income development. Already the project is a convincing demonstration of a viable alternative to current common practices which are, put simply, unaffordable. Sanitation has now been recognized out of the Millennium Development Goals as the one that is the most off-track. And whilst it is widely reported that we now live in a predominantly urban world with an estimated 40% of those urbanities living in slums; it is less commonly reported that urban sanitation coverage has only increased slightly. So although toilet access is higher in urban areas unsanitary conditions in urban areas are aggravated by a lack of infrastructure and high-density living. A recent report by the Water and Sanitation Program (World Bank) concludes that to make any significant impact it is essential to adopt a multi-dimensional approach. If The Potty Project were to win it would raise awareness about urban sanitation: that urban sanitation is about a chain of services, that must be pro-poor and sit within a municipal/ city framework, that it cannot be tackled in isolation, that there must be a strong environment which enables rather than creates dependency and that there needs to be accountability at both a global and local level.
Winning this award would also help support a continued presence in the area and expand into other initiatives such as sludge re-use and explore other new innovations.
The primary challenge of the project was navigating the complexity of working in a site that is so far out and disconnected from the city. In 2011 a smaller concept idea of what eventually became The Potty Project was awarded the prestigious Holcim Award in the "Next Generation" category. The Holcim Award is an international competition that recognizes innovative projects and future-oriented concepts. The jury gave the award “due to its sound research approach that leads to a practical solution for an urgent problem … The realization is a convincing demonstration of a best practice process, leading to a simple, cost-effective solution. Its pedagogic approach provides knowledge and promotes common acting of individuals leading to a consolidated sense of community, beneficial to all. The project sets a moving signal for the future of sharing responsibilities – here and elsewhere.” The small funds awarded through this prize enabled the team to get the technical expertise required to execute the project and jump a technical hurdle.
Keeping the community on board was also a challenge because the project took so long from conception to execution. It was at the beginning difficult getting the balance right between engaging with the community and not promising something we didn’t know we could deliver. By maintaining open channels and putting communication structures in place such as regular street level meetings the community were kept informed and actively participated in aspects such as lobbying for government permission.