Via The Guardian: A toilet or safe drinking water? The stark choice facing many people in rural India. Excerpt:
June in Odisha state’s Puri district, and the mercury is hitting 39C. The monsoon is still days away but, when it comes, the Mahanadi river could flood low-lying villages, as it often has done. One such village is Aaruha, a network of congested huts surrounded by vast rice fields.
Chaibi Swain, 52, lives here with her husband, a rice farmer. Her home is little different to the rest of Aaruha’s low-rise dwellings, but it has a toilet, which puts her among a small minority in rural Odisha. Eight out of nine people in Odisha’s villages do not use toilets, instead defecating in the open, leaving them vulnerable to diseases. The Swains, with their tiny toilet, which empties into a leach pit – a hole in the ground used to compost faeces when there is no sewage system – are the face of progress.
There is a problem, however. The leach pit is next to the household’s drinking-water source, a tube well. Water so close to a leach pit is vulnerable to contamination from faecal germs, since bacteria, viruses and protozoa can travel through soil. Worse, when the monsoon comes and the Mahanadi overruns its banks, the groundwater levels in Aaruha rise, making the contamination worse. The Swains’ toilet could actually be a health risk.
They aren’t the only ones whose backyard toilet is a threat to the water supply. As the Swachch Bharat Mission (SBM) – India’s ambitious campaign to stop open defecation by 2019 – gains pace, about 1.3m leach-pit toilets have been built in Odisha alone.
In districts such as Ganjam, Balasore and Puri, these pits are often built without safeguards against contamination, say the NGOs working with the government. “It is quite alarming, because if this problem is not addressed at this time, we are building sites of contamination all around,” says Devdeep Saha, a research associate at the sanitation NGO Friend in Need Trust.
The safeguards in coastal districts such as Puri, which have high groundwater tables and are prone to flooding, include keeping a 10-metre distance between water sources and leach pits, raising the top of pits above the ground so that flood water does not enter, and sealing the bottom of pits to prevent pathogens escaping. But villagers who build their own toilets in return for funds from the mission often ignore these safeguards.
The reasons are many. First, many households in congested villages do not have the space to build toilets and tube wells far apart. Harendranath Pradhan, a government sanitation engineer in Odisha’s Balasore district, says this is the main reason for guidance being ignored. Even though his job is to ensure toilets are properly built, Pradhan says this isn’t always possible.
“We tell the beneficiary to maintain a distance from the water source. But they say they don’t have the land. So we build the toilet, because we have to meet targets,” he says.