Septage : Kerala’s Looming Sanitation Challenge


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Kerala is a beautiful state in South India, home to about 34 million people, many of whom share my pride as a Keralite.  Of all the states in India, Kerala scores the highest on the  human development index, has one of the highest literacy rates in India (around 95%), a low Infant Mortality Rate,  gender ratio in favor of the female population, stunning landscapes (highlands, mid-lands, low-lands), and a booming tourism industry. It is God’s own country, as the promoters of tourism industry has named it.

While India has the highest number of people defecating in the open in the world, the state of Kerala has a large number of households with their own toilets (96% coverage). However, by solving that problem, the communities now have another. With household access to toilets high and most connected to septic tanks, periodic emptying of septic tanks is essential. And, if the septage is not safely disposed of, and is dumped into open streams/rivers, paddy fields and other areas, contamination of drinking water sources is possible.

People don’t want to discuss this “dirty” business, but it’s an issue that must be addressed. On-site sanitation seems to be the only solution since a very small percentage of the state is connected to sewer networks. For most of Kerala, sewer networks are practically difficult because the cities in the state are already densely inhabited and the homestead pattern in villages is typically a continuous spread with very little separation between rural and urban areas.

When the government approached the World Bank to help address this issue, I wanted to see first-hand the current practice. Little did I know that I was signing up for an exciting midnight mission. I contacted some private septic tank cleaners in Kochi (commercial capital of the State and a bustling city), who invited me to come along with them and at 10 p.m. we started our late night assignment. At the first house in an upper-class neighborhood, a well-dressed man came out of the house to quickly show the location of his septic tank, pay the contractor and then immediately retreated back to the house. My guides for the evening, a three-member team (a driver and two workers), said it is common that their customers didn’t want to see the business of emptying fecal matter from their septic tanks. The workers, the typical 20-somethings who usually do this job, also explained to me the work, in spite of its stigma, is highly rewarding. Each worker makes about $20USD a night, about twice as much as most other workers of their age and category. I was pleased to find that the workers appear to be from diverse backgrounds, basically the same as would be found undertaking other types of manual labor.

The work of emptying septic tanks is mainly done in the middle of the night from 10 p.m. – 5 a.m.  This is because it is essentially a clandestine activity as they have to dump the collected sludge in any available open space, a practice that is done under the cover of darkness. The State has no facility for treatment and disposal of septage collected from the septic tanks. Though open dumping of septage is illegal, in the absence of facilities to receive septage from the private operators and treat it for safe disposal, the law enforcement agencies are finding it difficult to regulate and control open dumping.  There are more than 25 private operators with more than 60 vehicles (each with a capacity of 5,000 liters) working daily in and around Kochi. Rough estimates indicate that they collect about 600, 000 liters of sludge daily, all of which is getting discharged in the open environment without any treatment.

The open dumping of septage has become a major issue for Kerala and a threat to its progress. While open defecation means fecal matter is spread around in smaller quantities, septage dumping means discharge of highly concentrated pathogens with potential to cause significant health and environmental damages. Local newspapers are frequently reporting on incidences of septage dumped in water bodies and paddy fields and villagers agitating against illegal dumping, even sometimes beating up the workers of the operators, citing the plight of villages where septage brought from cities is contaminating their drinking water sources.

Along with an increase in news coverage, newspapers are also seeing an increase in advertisements for the septic tank cleaning business, which is flourishing. Five years ago you would have seen two or three ads, and now you regularly see around 15 operators advertising their services in the classified column of the newspapers. With business booming and the public discourse growing increasingly heated, regulation and finding solutions are even more important.

Not only is there a public health risk due to the open dumping of septage, but there are also significant economic costs. Kerala has a high morbidity rate and a high incidence of water borne diseases.  Costs to families include expenditure on boiling water (a very common practice even in restaurants, where you will be offered boiled water), time lost due to illness and medical expenses, among others.

There is a Public Interest Litigation in the Courts on this issue and the State Government has given an undertaking in the Supreme Court of India that the State will develop proper treatment and disposal facilities for septage management within three years. We are now helping the State Government to develop a strategy to address the issue and is also providing support to the World Bank’s Second Kerala Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Project (Jalanidhi – II) in piloting a regional septage treatment facility in one district. The lessons we are developing have a great deal of potential for application across India; reflecting the high population density of Kerala, the Ministry of Urban Development has shown a strong interest in our work and we are already working with the ministry to extract lessons learnt and develop a national septage management policy.

While I love all of my assignments across India, most of which are in the Northern States where economic and social conditions are often below the national average, it is a source of great satisfaction to me to be able to work on a program which promises to make a material difference to the environment of my home state and to the well-being of fellow Keralites. The time to act is now as otherwise the gains of improved access to sanitation will be negated by the open dumping of septage, not only in Kerala, but across all India.


Suseel Samuel

Water & Sanitation Specialist

Join the Conversation

Jonnalagadda V R Murty
April 04, 2013

Dear Suseel

Good to know the efforts being made by you and other team members on this major issue of septage management in India. As we all know, this is a huge issue to be tackled in achieving total sanitation and its good to see efforts to bring out 'hidden' issues into open and demonstrate ways to address the challenge.

Good wishes to all your team members.

Best wishes


April 04, 2013

This is truly an interesting, but at the same a shocking story. I am unable to stand the brunt of the visual portrayed by the author...a densely populated state, most of them use septic tank, a number of agencies in the dark empty shit full of pathogens into natural water bodies/open wonder morbidity of kerala people is so high, but mortaliy is less thanks to eduction and health care. I am hopeful, the educated people of Kerala would find good ways to sort this out.commitment of the author to venture out for a night mission leaving the comforts of hotel is commendable.

April 04, 2013

a very well written blog. I was waiting for a little more concrete description of solution but the less than one liner "a regional septage treatment facility" was sort of anti climax!!

christophe Prevost
April 04, 2013

Great article ! Fascinating story ! Development is an endless process...

Ajai Kumar S
April 05, 2013

Dear Dr Samuel,

Very well written. People are not aware of the disadvantages of such an approach followed by them. If the Bank is taking up such issues with the State Govt, there are chances for the State to come up with "routine IEC campaigns" which will focus on sensitizing them on the drawbacks, without offering any alternatives. This will lead to failure in behaviour change. Instead, we should start campaigning on the advantages of producing bio gas from human excreta. Some of my friends have started doing this at their homes.

Ajai Kumar
​S Ajai Kumar
Communication and Advocacy Consultant
UNDP, New Delhi

(Former Media Specialist for World Bank aided Kerala Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Programme)

Josy Thomas
April 06, 2013

Hello sir, It is shocking and alarming situation! Living in a western world we are not even aware of how septage is being treated here. But we know it is safely dsiposed of and treated. There are no septic tanks here, but being disposed of through pipes from the source starigtaway i guess...Congrats on your efforts sir and good luck. I am hearing that dengui fever is spreading in kottayam area due to unsafe drinking water!

Dr P S Harikumar
April 08, 2013

Centre for Water Resources Development and Management, Calicut (Kozhikode) Kerala is carrying out a study on the septage issues of Kerala. We did a survey all across the State with the support of Suchitwa Mission on the septage issues. The report is under preparation. The septage from selected locations were collected and analysed for its physico-chemical and bacteriological characteristics. We also developed some cost effective treatment methods to manage the waste . The study indicate that, it will be more appropriate if the septage can be managed/treated at the household or local level.

April 11, 2013

It is a very interesting investigative story clearly spells out the issues of septage management in ‘God’s Own Country’. Municipal Solid Waste Management and septage treatment are the major issues facing by Kerala. Most people in Kerala are well aware of the ill effects of dumping septage in water bodies and other open places. But the attitude of the people is that ‘it should be removed from my house and I am not bothered about the others’. We have to work to change this attitude and also to provide locally appropriate septage treatment facilities atleast on regional basis. Proper maintenance of the septage treatment plant is more important than setting-up the plant. People in many areas oppose to establish septage treatment plant only because of their apprehension regarding its proper maintenance. I hope the Local Self Government Department will take initiatives to resolve this issue, with the technical support of the World Bank.

Kurian Baby
April 14, 2013

Dear Suseel
It has come out well and captured the challenge, concern and your commitment. We are looking forward to the outcome of the piloting under Jalanidhi II. I think it would have been also great to mention about the cost of emptying which is very high, when compared to the cost of a latrine. It all leads directly to the life cycle cost of maintaining a latrine notwithstanding the huge indirect of polluting water sources. Surprisingly our sanitation programmes focus on privacy and not on sanitary outcomes
Kurian Baby

Seena abraham
April 16, 2013

Read your paper sir . The one incident you quote from kochi, the same happened in my house also . we fixed the rate and closed the door .We had a feeling that our duty is over and rest is their responsibility,out of the belief that they safely dump the waste. But in reality what they have done is shocking for us . They just dumped the whole thing in our nearby useless land . It become a social issue in the locality . We have to spend a lot of money to manage the issue.I hope this blog will be an eye opener for all Keralities and the Goverment authorities. Congrats for your efforts sir .
Seena Abraham.

Dr. Jose Antony
April 24, 2013

It is great to get your expertise and concern to the Malayalees on this issue. As you have clearly said the issue of septic tank cleaning and dumping the sledge on others coast is yet another open face of the hypocritical Kerala upper or upper middle class. The practice of dumping the waste (of any type and nature) in the open place or sombody's land (especially to the rural place) is very common in our locality too. It is unfair and injustice that the sledge of the haves is dumped on the common poor of the villages or the water sources. The water sources have become the waste dumping yards and the sources of epidemics and grave physical illnesses. The effort of the World Bank and Government of Kerala to find a permanent solution to this problem is very good and timely initiated. If thee is a common facility to treat the sledge the cleaning of the septic tank and dumping that will be more legitimate and scientific. The water sources and the open places will be kept clean for the people and the nature. The efforts of the SULABH INTERNATIONAL in this sector may be referred in the process.
Any way we all appreciate this great effort and also congratulate Dr. Suseel in making this grave issue open for a discussion and concrete action. We all look forward to get more thought provoking insights from people like you in the collective efforts.
Dr. Jose Antony
Head, Department of Social Work
SSUS Kalady Kerala

October 31, 2013

A couple of clarifications for an important issue being highlighted. The impression that it is the 'dumping' of sludge which is the pollutant and not the septic tank itself is wrong. I would think that the septic tank would pollute the groundwater much more than the sludge and therefore improving the design of the septic tank and developing strategies to kill pathogens within would be of most importance. Simple dosage of the sludge with a shock load of bleaching powder and/or urea would reduce the pathogen load considerably and would not be costly. In the more arid parts of Karnataka where too this is common , the sludge produces an excellent fertilizer using the Bangalore method of composting (Acharya -1939) and is in fact resold at Rs 2000 - 2500 a tractor load. the sludge would make for excellent fertiliser especially for non edible crops and for fuel plantations. It is better to look for these plantations as receivers of sludge than district based sludge treatment plants which would simply be very,very expensive. Some information here may be of help…

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May 22, 2016

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Sushil Chandran
January 23, 2019

Concerned as a Keralite. Would like to know how Kerala is bracing itself for SW monsoon and possible heavy rainfall that may aggravate the situation?