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Achieving Sustainable Sanitation in Asia

Publication | June 2019
Achieving Sustainable Sanitation in Asia

Development finance has largely been directed towards centralized systems of wastewater management, which has resulted in large populations being excluded from proper wastewater collection and treatment services.

Five thousand years ago, when the urban residents of the Sarasvati-Sindhu civilization sat on their toilets, their rural brethren used the fields to defecate. In both the urban and rural models of sanitation, nutrients were recycled via natural fertilizers, and water bodies were not used for dumping raw waste. Ancient Sanskrit oral texts lay out the importance of not allowing human waste, blood, or hazardous substances to contaminate water bodies under any circumstances. Accordingly, defecation was always conducted in distant, uninhabited places, after which feces were covered with soil, and the left hand was used for washing with small amounts of water. Natural plant-based soaps or sand were used to wash the left hand, which would still not be used for eating, just as a precaution. Cholera epidemics were unheard of in ancient India.

In contrast, London’s sewer commissioners “proudly noted the huge volume of human waste that the city’s toilets efficiently deposited into the river (Thames); 29,000 cubic yards in the spring of 1848 and 80,000 cubic yards by the winter of 1849” (Shah 2016). It was a period when Europe was in the grip of the miasma theory, now obsolete, which guided the people into believing that the banishing of odors led to a banishing of diseases. Thus, flush toilets enjoyed a spike in sales even as sewage from those toilets fouled the Thames and led to a massive cholera epidemic causing many deaths. But, the connection between fecal matter being sent into the river and the cholera outbreaks that that kept descending on London was not made until the late 1800s.

In the last 100 years, the world has made dizzying advances in science and technology. There is awareness about the direct link between poor sanitation and disease, school dropouts, loss of livelihood, and women’s disempowerment. Besides, many have pointed out the anomaly of living in an advanced age of space travel, mobile telephony, nanotechnology, and 3D printing while the most basic service of sanitation is not available to millions.

Key points
  • Development finance has largely been directed towards centralized systems of wastewater management, which has resulted in large populations being excluded from proper wastewater collection and treatment services.
  • In order to ensure the success of decentralized sanitation strategies, there is a need for institutional reform and the setting up of robust frameworks.
  • The spillover effects of proper sanitation, which include an increase in property tax revenues, can help to offset the costs of fecal sludge management.
Policy Brief No: 2019-4