Monsoons & Mumbai: how diseases spread due to ineffective sanitation

Just beneath the surface of Mumbai’s Maximum City veneer, lies a festering, overloaded sanitation system. A fact we are reminded of every year when the monsoons roll along. While the south-west monsoon itself is a force to contend with, in Mumbai the effects are worsened by a sheer lack of effective and well-managed sanitation in the city. Closely linked to issues of mismanaged and largely non-existent sanitation is ill-health, rapid spreading dangerous infectious disease and a spike in killer diseases like dengue and diarrhoea.

Water is a haven for a plethora of virus, bacteria, parasites and germs. When stagnant, it poses a unique challenge and threat, and even when flowing (through a badly planned system) it is known to be an unsafe space that is susceptible to become a breeding ground for disease and contamination. The fact of the matter is, the rapid and uncontrolled growth in our metros not only requires an equally rapidly growing public health and sanitation management, but also a thought to the impact our sanitation and waste has on the environment around us. With the onset of the monsoon, there is a significant spike in the emergence of water-borne diseases such as respiratory disorders, infections, leptospirosis, typhoid, jaundice and hepatitis.

In an ideal world, the notion that prevention is better than cure would spur us ahead to make improvements year on year, such that we do not find ourselves in a quandary every monsoon. But the harsh reality in a city like this, that bears the brunt of the coastal monsoon – averaging at 2200 mm – is that we are woefully underprepared, as far as sanitation goes.

At a country level, The Swacch Bharat Mission is committed to ensuring access to clean water and sanitation to all, since 2014, and even as over 12 million toilets have been constructed in rural areas, several unaddressed loopholes in the system remain. Take cities like Mumbai, for example, where 42% of its 12 million people live in slums, where access to toilets and safe sanitation routinely become a matter of life and death. On April 28 this year, two residents of the Saisadan Chawl in Bhandup drowned in a toilet mishap in the toilet block. A compromised septic tank that was filled beyond its capacity caved, dragging the two individuals down with it, requiring a seven hour rescue operation before their bodies were retrieved.

According to this report by the Observer Research Foundation, “Nearly 50 lakh residents of the city’s notified slums (slums which existed before the 1995/2000 cut-off date of the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme and therefore eligible for free housing under the scheme) are served by 750-odd community toilet blocks constructed under the World Bank-initiated Slum Sanitation Programme (SSP). These toilets have 26,379 seats, which approximately means one toilet seat to be shared by 190 users, as against the MCGM-accepted WHO norms of one toilet per 50 people. This overwhelming load is reduced by those who use the nearly 30,000-odd free-to-use MHADA toilets, those who can afford to daily use the other pay-and-use facilities, and those who defecate in the open.

Yes, you read that right. One toilet per 190 citizens. So, is it really a wonder that mishaps like these occur with such regularity? But that is not all. The infrastructural inadequacies are only the tip of the iceberg, dragging along the incredible weight of a monstrous disease threat, year upon year. Clogged drains, over-polluted waterways and a mismanaged solid waste disposal system have caused diseases like diarrhoea to claim over 100,000 childrens lived in India every year. 20% of the 500,000+ children under five years, who lose their lives annually due to severe dehydration caused by diarrhoea, are from India.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) place a renewed focus on achieving universal access to safe water and basic sanitation by 2030. Our current reality is that 1 in ever 2 Indians still has no access to adequate sanitation facilities. Open defecation continues to persist, even in urban areas like Mumbai, due to the sheer load on a system that is cowering under the weight of a burgeoning population. Our sanitation solutions look at the challenges plaguing urban areas in India today and provide solutions for key issues such as enabling toilets in the smallest places, and providing the shortest time for complete decomposition of toilet waste. In addition, they can also be either applied to existing defunct toilets, or installed in places where none have existed.

By taking the best of modern biotechnology and marrying it with scientific solutions that innately exist in nature, we’ve relooked at septic tank management and bio-toilets with a keen eye focus to make it relevant and beneficial to our reality and context today.

The United Nations estimates that by 2050, a quarter of the world’s population could potentially be affected by chronic or recurring shortages of water, while millions will continue to die due to diseases linked with inadequate and unsafe water. Since 1990, two and a half billion people have gained access to better sources of drinking water. Yet, 663 million people remain without. But perhaps, if we look at the crux of the issue – sanitation – we can slow this disaster in the making down. And maybe even halt it completely?

Post by Anuja Kenekar

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