Achieving total sanitation through inclusivity and climate resilience

Dr. Mahreen Matto & Shantanu Padhi

Universal access to adequate sanitation is a fundamental need and a human right. Securing access for all would go a long way in reducing illness and death, especially among children, writes Dr. Mahreen Matto, Team Lead, SCBP, NIUA and Shantanu Padhi, Senior Program Officer (Technical), SCBP, NIUA.

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report, leaves no room for doubt that climate change is intensifying the water cycle. Thus impacting on people’s rights to water and sanitation, by causing floods and droughts, changes in precipitation and temperature extremes, that result in water scarcity, contamination of drinking water and exacerbation of the spread of disease. It’s a common sight in Indian cities during monsoon that heavy rain of a few hours floods the roads and drainage systems, as a result of sewage water from sewer holes, and open drains enter the houses which are located at lower ground level, thus creating havoc. The marginalised and low income settlements are especially the worst affected, often. Furthermore, heavy precipitation and flood events can lead to physical damage of non-sewered sanitation infrastructure, especially pit latrines and septic systems, making them non-functional when filled with water, especially in densely populated urban areas and informal settlements.

Similarly, during drought situations, due to lack of water, unhygienic conditions prevail for both population dependent on onsite systems and sewered network systems.
Furthermore, sanitation systems contribute to greenhouse-gas emissions (GHGs), in the events such as during breakdown of excreta stored in onsite systems, indiscriminately discharged of excreta into the environment, at treatment processes, and indirectly through when the energy is required in treatment steps¹.


India has walked a commendable journey of moving from a country with 60 per cent of its urban population defaecating in the open (Census 2011), to open defaecation-free (ODF) within 5 years of Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) implementation. The focus of the SBM 1.0 (Urban) remained largely on providing basic facilities to households by building toilets at Individual and community scale – precisely superstructure. Moreover, with this focused agenda, we see ~100 million toilets built on ground. Nevertheless, post providing the toilets-to-all, the question that has very well come out is ‘What happens to the waste after it is flushed down the toilet?’ Thus, we see time-to-time various guidelines and advisories being released by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA), Government of India, addressing issues and challenges and recommending guidelines across sanitation value chain irrespective of centralised or decentralised waste management.

The recently launched SBM 2.0 has moved to the next step, from building toilets to providing treatment facilities for wastewater and septage treatment to the small and medium cities, realising that only providing conventional infrastructure in sanitation will not be enough and will not lead us towards sustainability with changing time. Hence, there is a need to adopt inclusive and resilient infrastructure, which would be able to safely manage wastewater, faecal sludge and septage. The marginalised, low income, woman, children and transgenders population of the cities have to be considered during planning across the sanitation value from User Interface to End-use/Reuse.


We need to integrate our strategies and solutions with the factors of climate change, in addressing the concerns of sanitation in India. The range of mitigation and adaptation opportunities related to sanitation and wastewater systems indicate that opportunities for climate action are overlooked, as there is very limited inclusion in climate policy and finance. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 6.2 talks about achieving access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defaecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations by 2030. Closely linked is SDG 6.3 which talks about improving water quality, wastewater treatment and safe reuse prove water quality, and wastewater treatment. Climate change impacts existing sanitation systems and impedes progress to achieving these targets. Such dangers further pose a serious challenge to India’s sustainable development since they disproportionately affect marginalised and vulnerable groups of the society with limited capacity for adaptation.

Measures to be taken

The emphasis on integration throughout the SDG Agenda has highlighted that the target for SDG 6 (Water and Sanitation) is imperative, which must be achieved in order to attain a number of other outcomes of SDG, including good water quality, healthy aquatic ecosystems, gender equality, health and well-being. The possible options in this direction could be as follows:

  • Need to develop effective information systems to access updated and reliable data, and to make informed decisions for ensuring climate resilient services
  • More systematic assessment of GHG emissions from different sanitation technologies is needed to better inform decision making in the sector, whether it involves selection of on-site technologies or upgrading of wastewater treatment plants
  • Identifying appropriate technologies that are most effective in reducing negative climate impacts and reaching the most vulnerable populations of the country. Thus, selection of affordable technology should also be based on climate performance, in addition to other environmental, technical, social and financial concerns
  • Expanding the WHO’s Sanitation Safety Planning (SSP), which provides a structure to bring together various stakeholders, to conduct local level assessment and management of health risks across the sanitation service chain, to include climate considerations beyond the identification of hazardous events related to seasonal or climatic factors².

Having said that, sanitation and climate change need to be used in the instruments of research, advocacy and capacity building to pitch it into the next sanitation programmes of Government of India. Need to incorporate climate resilience, nature based solutions, diversity & inclusion and net zero into ‘business as usual’. Strengthening the urban environment from a climate lens requires holistic understanding of risks and vulnerabilities and incorporating the same in the design and implementation of new urban development projects.


Way Forward

Based on the context presented, unfortunately we are still trying to solve new issues with old solutions and our past experience turns to be our greatest enemy when it comes to changing our attitude. We are still investing in linear systems, ’big pipes in and big pipes out’ transfer model, focusing on ‘hard’ infra- technological solutions. We continue to operate in silos; our policies are set without aligning objectives with the required resources; we depend on public funds that are insufficient; and the new sources of finance for water and sanitation constrained by regulatory, institutional and other barriers. These factors are further exacerbated by the impacts of climate change and other environmental stressors, ultimately heightening the challenges, and constraining the availability and the quality of urban water and sanitation management. It is high time that we take our water and sanitation sector seriously and retrospect the way we manage it, as it will help in taking serious actions that will lead towards sustainable water and sanitation management.

1. Dickin, S., Bayoumi, M., Giné, R., Andersson, K., & Jiménez, A. (2020). Sustainable sanitation and gaps in global climate policy and financing.
NPJ Clean Water, 3(1), 1-7
2. Sanitation safety planning manual for safe use and disposal of wastewater, greywater and excreta-