Waste not, want not

Doctor R.C. Jha put an apple-sized lump of human excrement to his nose in the manner of an excited gourmand and inhaled mightily. "Black gold," he says, smiling and exhaling at the same time. "It has phosphorous, nitrogen, potash. This is not waste, it's fertiliser."

The nugget had, in Jha's words, spent several years underground "maturing into manure", and appeared so much like any other clump of dirt that it was difficult at first to believe in its provenance.

"The pathogens are dead," he says, tossing it over his shoulder. "All that is left is goodness."

The chief scientist at the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, a sanitation research institute in west Delhi, Jha is demonstrating the "twin-pit, pour flush" toilet system developed by Sulabh's founder, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, known throughout India as the ''guru of toilets''.

According to figures released earlier this month by the World Health Organisation, around 600 million Indians deposit 65 million tonnes of human waste in the open every day.

The consequences of dumping such vast quantities of human waste into the open are far reaching. Improper treatment of human waste accounts for 80 per cent of India's diseases including cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A and typhoid.

The problem is so acute that in India's recent election campaign, the country's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to build 100 million toilets in his first five-year term.

"We have around 8000 cities and towns in India, and less than 300 of them have piped sewage systems," says Pathak. "But trying to build a piped sewage system in every city and town is not the solution, it's too overwhelming."

Which is why Pathak's ''twin-pit, pour flush'' system offers such potential as a cheap, efficient and hygienic solution to hundreds of millions of people who live without access to a toilet.

In the twin-pit system, waste is flushed from a toilet bowl built on a raised platform with around two litres of water poured from a bucket. It then flows down through a PVC pipe into a nearby circular pit that is lined with honeycombed concrete or clay, or porous wooden logs or bamboo.

The pit is sealed with a concrete lid, while the toilet bowl itself is fitted with a water trap like any other flush toilet to prevent unpleasant odours escaping through the pipe.

Jha says that for a typical toilet with around 10 daily users, a pit 70 centimetres wide and 1.5 metres deep will take about three years to fill. When the first pit is full, the waste is diverted to the twin pit in the same way a railway switch is used to shift trains from one track to another.

"While the second pit is being filled, the waste in the first pit is composting. By the time the second pit is full, the waste in the first pit is completely dry and ready to be harvested as fertiliser," he says. "Then you start over again, alternating between the two pits."

Not only is the toilet private and perfectly hygienic, it needs no chemicals or energy to compost the waste, and uses about 90 per cent less water than a regular flush toilet, thus posing no danger to the ground water table.

Perhaps most important of all, it's cheap, with the model being demonstrated by Jha costing only 15,000 rupees, or $250, to install.

About 90 minutes drive north-west of Delhi is the village of Hir Mithla, home to about 145 houses and 1200 people and a textbook example of a rural community.

The men either work the land or commute to Delhi for menial labour jobs, while the women raise the children and do the housework. Tertiary and secondary level education is out of reach. Drinking water is delivered by truck, while most of the electricity is supplied by portable diesel generators.

"In 2011, not a single household in this village had a toilet," says environmental scientist Monika Jain, a project director at the International Academy of Environmental Sanitation and Public Health.

Several years ago Jain managed a sanitation awareness project in the area surrounding Hir Mithla. When Sulabh asked her to run a project to install toilets in a rural area, Jain picked Hir Mithla.

Not only was it relatively close to Delhi, but she knew some of the people there, which she hoped would make the job easier.

"Initially, the biggest problem we faced was getting people to talk about the problem of waste, and the idea of using toilets," says Jain. "It took three or four months of visiting the village every week before people even started listening."

With a project team of four, including one person who lived in the village, Jain eventually made enough progress to persuade the village to accept the construction of a public toilet with four cubicles.

"The idea of going to the toilet in your home is a big issue for people who have spent their entire lives depositing their waste as far away from their homes as possible," says Jain.

"If you just go and install a toilet in someone's home, without making sure they understand how it works, then people are likely to be very suspicious and they will use the toilet space for something else like food storage."

Jain's biggest ally in the campaign was 50-year-old Shankuntala Tanwar, the leader of a women's group that acts as a microfinance lender in the village.

Tanwar, who lives with 14 other people in a small family compound consisting of four or five brick and concrete huts built around a central courtyard, says that for most of her life going to the toilet was a degrading experience.

"It was always one of the hardest parts of the day, because as a woman I can't just go against the wall. I would have to walk through the open until I could find a place where no one can see me," Tanwar says.

During the monsoon season, when the fields are often flooded due to heavy rains, the only place she would be able to find relief was the side of the highway, exposing her to abuse from passing motorists who would often hurl stones at her.

"People yell and say things to me, they would slow down and throw rocks at me, it was very difficult, humiliating. I would get a lot of bruises."

Tanwar's experience is true for most women in India who don't have access to a toilet, especially after dark when other factors such as sexual assault and snake bite are a significant risk.

When Monika Jain approached Tanwar to help persuade the people of Hir Mithla to install a trial public toilet, she says she was immediately supportive, and worked hard to bring everyone on board. "It took some time, but eventually everyone liked the idea, and supported it."

The trial was an instant success. With the support of Sulabh and corporate donations, Jain proceeded with the plan to install a toilet in every home in the village.

The first house to receive its own toilet was Tanwar's, nearly three years ago. Her son Rakesh Kumar, 30, says the toilet has changed his family's life. Located at the rear of the courtyard, the "twin-pit, pour flush" toilet works just as the one demonstrated by Jha at the Sulabh compound in Delhi.

The outhouse was immaculately clean, and looked like any other toilet except that it was missing a water cistern. When I asked Kumar where the storage pits were, he pointed to my feet.

"We opened the pit last year and it was only half full," he says. The toilet has been such a success that the family paid to install another one on the roof.

"I am happy, all of us are very happy," says Kumar, "but the happiest is my wife and the sisters [in-law]. The change in their lives is really huge."

Today, every household in Hir Mithla has a toilet. "When I first began this project, I had very low expectations," says Jain, who is now working on another project to install toilets in a neighbouring village. "This was not where I expected my science degree to take me. Now, it's my passion."

If 24-hour electricity and clean running water are basic requirements for entry to the first world club of nations, then a functioning sewage system is not far behind.

The world's first modern sewage system was built in London in the 1860s, when the river Thames was virtually an open sewer and the "great stink" of 1858 forced politicians to take action.

New York followed soon after, and around the end of the 19th century the third city in the world to have an integrated sewage system was Calcutta, then the capital of British India.

"How modern society treats waste is actually a very colonial concept," says Vijayaraghavan Chariar, associate professor of rural development and technology at Delhi's Indian Institute of Technology.

"It's accepted in the west that you are not a modern society until everyone has flush toilets that carries the waste far away from you. Flush it and forget it."

The problem with modern sewage systems, says Charian, is that they require huge amounts of water and energy, two resources that India has precious little of.

"We cannot sustain a system that requires 15 litres of water for every flush. There are too many people, and not enough water. And if you are going to build a sewage system for flush toilets, then you need the electricity to pump all the water, and more electricity to clean the water. We don't have enough energy to do that either."

According to Dr Charian, who recently helped the World Health Organisation develop a national campaign urging people to "take the poo to the loo", Indians have to overcome a sense of shame surrounding inadequate sewage treatment and start addressing the problem openly.

"Of course, take the poo to the loo, but what happens to the poo after the loo is just as important," says Charian. "Here in Delhi, for instance, a city of over 20 million people, 80 per cent of the sewage ends up in the river untreated because. We can't just forget it. We need to confront the problem, deal with it."

Much like the river Thames of mid-19th London, Delhi's Yamuna river - the same river that passes the Taj Mahal upstream - is virtually an open sewer.

"It's not just that it smells bad, it's poisoning the river systems, rivers that for many people in India are actually holy and sacred," says Charian. "These polluted rivers are the source for irrigated agriculture, and the pollution is entering our bodies."

Charian believes that India must abandon the idea of a Western-style sewage system and focus instead on environmentally sustainable toilet systems, much like Bindeshwar Pathak's ''twin-pit, pour flush'' toilet.

Just the installation of dry urinals, Charian argues, would save up to 75,000 litres of water per toilet, per year. Another alternative for dealing with solid waste is to use it to produce biogas.

Back at the Sulbah compound in west Delhi, Pathak's researchers have done exactly that, building a system that takes waste from a public toilet facility built onto the street, and using it to create enough biogas to supply the compound's daily cooking needs.

At the flick of a switch, the biogas can be used to power generators that can produce more than enough electricity for the entire compound.

"More people in India have access to a mobile phone than a toilet," saysPathak. "We have a sanitation crisis. If we can change that, change the way we treat human excreta, then we can change this country forever. It will take time, but I believe we can get there."

Jason Koutsoukis is Fairfax south Asia correspondent.

This story Waste not, want not first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.