India needs climate-resilient sanitation tech
- India loses 73 million workdays each year to water-borne infections
- Only a third of India’s rural population has access to toilets
- Climate change could negatively impact India’s water and sanitation plans
The influence of climate change on sanitation, and the need to improve the water and sanitation sector has received limited recognition in India. Climate-resilient sanitation technologies need to be developed and integrated with India's national sanitation policy and programmes.
In India, more than 73 million workdays are lost each year on account of water-borne infections. The fundamental causes of India's tardy progress on the drinking water and sanitation fronts are high population growth, rapid urbanisation, poor governance, low sectoral capacity, inadequate accountability mechanisms, and insufficient expenditure on operation and maintenance.
India shifts sanitation gears
In India, the 12th Five-Year plan — national five-year economic plans prepared by Planning Commission — has accorded a high priority to the sanitation sector. Allocations for rural sanitation increased by a whopping 425 per cent from US$ 1,038 million (Rs. 65,400 million) in the previous plan to US$ 5,455.8 million (Rs. 343,770 million) in the 12th plan. The higher budgetary allocation went hand-in-hand with a transformation of the national rural sanitation scheme -Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) to the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (movement for safe sanitation). While TSC focused on motivating individual households to build toilets, NBA shifts the focus to sanitation programmes focusing on usage of toilets. The shift follows India's latest 2011 national census findings that only 30.7 per cent of rural households in India have access to toilets. Further, the UNICEF and World Health Organization (WHO) found that in 2011, only 24 per cent of rural India used improved sanitation facilities.
Even as India struggles to achieve its sanitation goals, climate change will have a major impact on water supply and sanitation. For example, the latest report of the Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a rise in the frequency of floods and droughts due to global warming induced by human activities. The changing climate is expected to further deteriorate the existing water and sanitation infrastructure. Extreme events such as floods can damage septic tanks and sewerage systems, resulting in contamination of groundwater and increasing public health risks. Similarly, in drying environments, conventional sewerage systems, with relatively high water requirements are difficult to operate and maintain. As India becomes more urbanised, issues of discharge of sewage will increase, thereby compounding the problem arising from climate change. These will create new demands, both for infrastructure resilience to changing climate, as well as other linked issues such as building capacity to cope with impacts of climate change, through programmes on education and behavioural change.
There is enough evidence  to arrive at a general understanding of sanitation technologies that are more or less likely to be resilient to climate change in a given region. The Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Report of WHO and UNICEF, considers some technologies such as 'pit latrines', ‘low-flush septic systems’, 'high-volume septic tanks' and ‘modified sewerages’ as potentially resilient to climate change.
However, what is lacking is the tool to assess resilience of a technology in a specific location with vulnerability to multiple stresses from climate change and appropriate customisation. There is a need to revisit one-size-fits-all sanitation technology propagated by current policies and consider customised technologies at the local level.
Socio-economic tools, such as disseminating early warnings for climate hazards and marketing alternative technologies would also help sustain safe sanitation practices. Failure to achieve climate change resilience in water supply and sanitation will have serious public health consequences. As both water availability and quality becomes less certain, problems in sanitation infrastructure systems may lead to severe environmental contamination.
In order to make the sanitation infrastructure more robust, it is imperative to adopt new approaches. This would involve infrastructure investments, trained technical and other personnel, transfer of technology and, most importantly, systematic implementation of climate change-resilient sanitation technologies. Technology changes arising from assessments should be based on climate performance, in addition to other environmental, technical, social and financial concerns.
The challenges associated with sewage collection and treatment are expected to increase as we bring in urban sanitary facilities at the household level. Indian cities already have a huge backlog of incomplete or poorly maintained sewerage systems. Investments in sewerage systems must match investments in water supply. In order to reduce net water demand, recycling and reuse of the waste water must be part of the water-sewage system planning.
Water and sanitation policies alone, however, are unlikely to be sufficient to secure climate change resilience. Energy policies also need reforms. Subsidised electricity for agriculture is responsible for over-abstraction of groundwater in many Indian states. There is an urgent need for including the emerging drinking water and sanitation complexities, such as climate related vulnerabilities, to be fully reflected in an Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) policy, to reconcile competing demands and promote inter-sectoral collaboration to deal with climate change impacts.
Only then will India move closer to achieving the UN Millennium Development Goal or the post-2015 Development Agenda.
Girija K. Bharat is Fellow and Area Convener, WRPM, Water Resources Division, The Energy & Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi
 JMP 2013 update: Progress on sanitation and drinking-water
 Vision 2030, WHO-DFID, The resilience of water supply and sanitation in the face of Climate Change, 2010