The Brave New World of Sanitation Innovation and Research

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ImageHappy belated 1st World Toilet Day! The newly designated UN day embodies the enormous development challenge of providing safe toilets to all. More than 2.5 billion people still don’t have access to adequate sanitation and 1 billion defecate in the open. It brings into sharp focus the need to foster innovation and dialogue on sanitation, especially given our straggler status on the sanitation MDG. From enhancing water management to ending open defecation, the wide ambit of influencing policy and behavior change can seem daunting at times.

In this backdrop, stories of impact and out-of-the-box experiments from the field provide hope for the future. NGOs and researchers alike are upping the novelty ante in addressing the multiple facets of sanitation. A leitmotif of risk-taking and innovation imbues these bold new initiatives, and because they emphasize concurrent impact evaluation, the results of these experiments would be instructive in understanding the future of sanitation. The Gates Foundation, a pioneer in catalyzing change through innovation, has launched the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge (RTTC), which aims to identify promising new technologies for capturing efficiencies in transporting and treating waste at point of use and funds them to scale. By 2024, the Foundation expects to have proven tools and technologies for substantial, sustainable improvement in sanitation, serving 10 million people. Their upcoming Toilet Fair in March next year should be an interesting watch.  In addition, the fact that two of the Google Impact Challenge India finalists this year had sanitation-based projects is reason enough to think that sanitation is the new hot button for innovators and funders alike.

The development partners’ meeting hosted by the Water & Sanitation Program (WSP), earlier this week served as a forum for a smorgasbord of NGOs working on India’s complex and multi-layered water and sanitation challenge. Participants included speakers from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), Action For Food Production (AFPRO), The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), WaterAid India, Quicksand and Safe Water Network. The discussants spanned a still wider audience from across the development community. 

ImageWaterAid presented an interesting study, which touched upon the gender and caste dynamic vis-à-vis WASH access. It found that the main perpetrators of caste insults and verbal abuse experienced by Dalit women whilst fetching water were other caste women. Significantly, women at times felt burdened by having a toilet at home, because it bore on their water needs – and was a strain, especially in states where piped water supply in rural areas was uncommon. Their humble aspiration was that of a toilet with a tap inside it. The resounding message, therefore, was one of situating policy in delivery context, whilst being sensitive to the societal milieu in which we work by advancing the needs and aspirations of the communities we serve.

Clearly, what stood out was an appeal to the need for sanitation innovation rooted in rigorous monitoring & evaluation. This will help build traction for evidence-informed policy and shore up public and private investments in sanitation in the long term.

Understanding the myriad dimensions of WASH is an iterative process, and the WSP will be holding another workshop focused on the gender issues related to WASH from 9th – 10th December. Stay tuned!


Nidhi Khurana

Consultant, Water & Sanitation Program

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