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From Flooding Fears to Resilient Dreams: The Toilet Revolution Changing Lives
Meet Dr Pawan Kumar Jha, Winner SanTech Hackathon 2021
By Joohi Khushbu, with Nehal Ahsan, Kartik Kamath and Anja Bruschweiler
In the heart of our relentless mission to safeguard safe sanitation from the looming threat of climate change, a story of transformation unfolds. Over the past few years, a pivotal question has taken centre stage in our work. We have tirelessly championed and nurtured innovation in the realm of sanitation, driven not only by necessity but also by the unwavering belief that change is not just possible – it is essential.
The year 2021 stands out as a beacon of hope in our journey. It was the year we organised a hackathon, an event entirely dedicated to seeking innovative technical solutions for safely managed sanitation in areas prone to flooding and high-water tables. Flooding, a global menace, poses a substantial challenge to sanitation structures. When the ground’s water table surges during rainy seasons, the contents of pit latrines become a peril, contaminating the very life-giving waters we depend on for survival.
What follows is a testament to the power of human ingenuity and determination. We are overjoyed to share with you the story of one of the most remarkable outcomes of this hackathon – a story of a toilet with a difference. It’s called the raised plinth toilet, conceived by the brilliant Dr. Pawan Kumar Jha from India.
The raised plinth toilet is based on the Shankar-Balram model and has been adapted by Dr Jha to the specific context of Bihar. It is a marvel composed of two vital components: a (pour) flush toilet and three interconnected pits, each assigned a unique role: settling, treatment, and a leaching chamber. It’s a holistic solution that takes human waste, ensures it settles safely, treats it, and then returns it to the soil, all at ground level. It’s a beacon of hope in the darkest of times.
“The toilet and treatment chambers are raised above the usual flood level. In the chambers, waste is treated with bacterial growth media. At the end, the water percolates through the soil and comes out filtrated, with no chance of groundwater contamination.” Dr Jha
This revolutionary technology was not born in a laboratory but nurtured in the real world. In 2018-19, a local NGO, Gyan Seva Bharti Sansthan (GSBS), with the backing of FINISH Society and the funding from FINISH Mondial, embarked on a mission. They reached out to 52 families in Parsa Madhav village, Kishanpur Block, in the Supaul district of Bihar, India.
Supaul, like clockwork, witnesses an annual low-level flood from the Kosi river, a natural event that can disrupt lives in countless ways. It notably has catastrophic effects on safe sanitation: toilets are back-flowing, faecal matter is entering houses and contaminating the environment, and diseases spread. In these trying times, the flood-resistant toilets proved to be a saving grace. Families, and especially women, found a sanctuary in these toilets, an oasis of safety amidst the rising waters. No longer did they need to venture out into the dangers of open defecation.
“Women are the worst sufferers. When there is a flood, water is everywhere and people need to go far away. Women tend to go to the toilet at night, when it’s dark, far away. There are plenty of snakes that have come out of their holes, because of the flood. It’s a very unsafe situation.” Dr Jha.
Mr. Nehal Ahsan, the Programme Coordinator for Bihar at FINISH Society, also recalls the dangerous journeys, particularly for pregnant women, and the pain and discomfort they endured, especially during the floods. Now, with these flood-resistant toilets, they can reclaim their dignity, their safety, and their peace. Ahsan also speaks passionately about the technology in itself. He describes how it outshines the conventional septic tank and leach pit solutions.
But it’s not just about sanitation; it’s about economics and well-being. Mr. Shambhu Chaudhary, a resident of Parsa Madhav village and a ward member, shared his personal testimony. His family had been using the toilet for five years without any need for maintenance. The floodwater stayed out, and their lives transformed. Illnesses reduced, medical bills dwindled, and night-time treks filled with peril became a thing of the past. He even had a vision – a water tank as an addition to this technology, for a brighter future.
But the impact didn’t stop at individual households. Mr. Subhash Kumar, the District Coordinator of Supaul in the Government of Bihar, bore witness to an entire community’s transformation. He saw the fear of open defecation during floods give way to a sense of safety and convenience. The village embraced these toilets, not just for their own well-being but for the cleanliness of their surroundings.
Subhash was unwavering in his belief. He spoke with conviction about these flood-resistant toilets, believing them to be the ultimate solution for flood-prone areas. He passionately recommended their widespread adoption, not as mere infrastructure but as a beacon of hope in troubled times.
This story of transformation, of resilience in the face of adversity, has kindled a flame of inspiration within us. It has motivated FINISH Mondial to take the lessons learned from this remarkable journey and spread the light to flood-prone regions in Africa. It’s a story of hope, of innovation, and of humanity’s unyielding spirit in the face of climate change.
Listen to the full interview with Dr Jha:
Watch the full interview with Dr Jha: