Can solar solve Mumbai's deplorable sanitation situation?

Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager
Mumbai, 10 April 2015

The toilet situation in Mumbai's informal settlements is beyond shocking. Earlier this year, the city was outraged when a woman from a Mumbai slum died after the toilet seat she was using in a run-down toilet block caved in under her. A recent Harvard School of Public Health and Graduate School of Design study found that there is just one toilet for every 5,000 people. That's 10 times higher than the Bombay Municipal Corporation's estimated ratio, which is 1:500 — highly underestimated figures and far from where the municipality aims to be with one toilet for every 50 people. Even when toilets are present, they are often dirty, unsafe or closed altogether.

"The condition of these community toilets is truly shocking," write Shoumeli Das and Payal Tiwari, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation Mumbai who recently created a documentary about the deplorable state of Mumbai's toilets called "Toilet Torture." "According to a recent survey conducted by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, 58 percent of the community toilets in slums have no electricity and 78 percent have no water!"

A community toilet block in the suburb of Santacruz has been leading the way in addressing sanitation issues for local residents using sustainable mechanisms. Solar, they found, has been a key component of the toilet block's award-winning success.

Triratna Prerna Mandal (TPM), an NGO, began using solar when electricity and water bills became too expensive to run their toilet. "More than 1,000 people from the nearby Kothu Wadi slum depend on TPM's toilet for their sanitation, with the annual charge for using it being as minimal as Rs 150 (USD $2.40) for a family. The toilet earlier used to foot an electricity bill averaging Rs 6,000 (USD $90) every month without water heaters," says an article in the Times of India championing Mumbai's only solar-run toilet. "The toilet now has solar water heaters, with a capacity of heating 1,000 litres of water a day up to 60 degrees Celsius, and a half KW solar photovoltaic panel with a nine-hour battery backup for the night. They claim their electricity expenditure has gone down by 45 percent since."

In addition to lowering expenses, the solar panels have also increased safety for women. Issues around women's safety in Indian cities have been gaining more awareness, and much of that revolves around night-time trips to the toilet. The ability to run the electricity as needed around the clock at TPM makes the building safer for women.

While TPM's solar toilet block is a small endeavor in a city with overwhelming sanitation needs, more international organizations have taken an interest in combining sustainable solutions with expanded toilet access. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation debuted an "eco-friendly" solution to the sanitation issue in India last year. The self-contained, waterless toilet runs on solar power and converts human waste to biochar, a highly porous charcoal. The innovation came out of an international competition the Gates Foundation held to make a more lasting impact on the one of the world's most pressing problems. And solar, it seems, might just be leading the way.

Photo: SuSanA Secretariat

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