What makes a great community toilet? Learning from sanitation partnerships in Mumbai

Poor access to sanitation is not only a matter of human rights but also a serious threat to public health. Our student Allison Koornneef learns how sanitation partnerships can lead to improved and increased access to communal toilets from her internship with SPARC in Mumbai.

Mumbai, India

Like many other industrialization-induced megacities, Mumbai’s infrastructure is straining to accommodate some 20 million residents, more than half of  which live in informal communities. While there are many ways in which the quality of life in these informal settlements can be improved, sanitation is a vital and strategic area to focus on. Proper sanitation is not only a matter of human dignity and rights, it is also a way to mitigate a host of preventable health problems and their economic impact. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that for every dollar invested in sanitation–including safe drinking water and hygiene–$3-34 dollars are saved on medical costs, days of work lost to sickness, and improved health and productivity.

A common theme amongst informal communities in Mumbai and across the world is their vast deficit in public services. Where sanitation services such as sewage lines and connections are lacking, slum dwellers have limited options. Toilets are scarce; the toilets that do exist are almost always part of community toilets blocks, where users either pay per use or pay a monthly fee as members.

Dharavi Sewer
An open sewer running through Dharavi that becomes a receptacle for toilets, as well as a major breeding ground for disease-carrying insects. Dharavi is Asia’s largest slum with an estimated one million residents, located in the heart of Mumbai.

SPARC, an NGO pertaining to the Indian Alliance*, has been undertaking sanitation projects in Mumbai and the surrounding areas for the last thirty years. During my internship with SPARC, one of the main projects currently underway is an extensive review of the community toilet blocks created during the first phase of Mumbai Sewage Disposal Project (MSDP). SPARC collaborated as a lead NGO with the local municipality on this World Bank-funded project to build 158 community-maintained toilet blocks in slums across the city between 1999-2004. Nearly a decade later, the goal is to examine what works and what doesn’t in these toilet blocks in terms of technical aspects, design, CBO (community-based organization) management and user behaviour issues.

Toilet Block Mumbai
One of the toilet blocks constructed under the MSDP-SSP in a northern ward of the city

To accomplish this, teams visit each toilet block at least twice and engage in detailed conversations with the CBO leaders and members to understand the challenges they face and the solutions they have sought out. The goal is to identify potential support and interventions at the current stage as well as to gain insight before the next phase of MSDP. SPARC has also gone beyond its scope of work to map the location of the toilets using a simple GPS device and is introducing this data in Google Earth.

Team members at SPARC interviewing a CBO. Photo © SPARC

One of the key areas that I have contributed to is the mapping aspect of this project: locating toilet blocks, compiling data for the Google Earth database, and tailoring how the information will be viewed. With a fellow intern from a local university, we navigated the vast network of pedestrian paths in the slums relying on the original addresses, recorded nearly a decade ago, and directions from the residents. The somewhat subjective boundaries of neighbourhoods, called nagars, within the slums, as well as the many changes that have occurred over the last decade (such as demolitions and redevelopment) have made the task of locating the toilets a challenge.

After the GPS points are collected, they are compiled with images and other relevant information and formatted through the Google Earth mapping database. During this process, interesting questions arose about how to best visually communicate the information and its analysis. As SPARC compiles and analyzes the survey data, common themes and patterns as well as emerging solutions are being discovered. What factors lead to more or less successful toilet blocks and why? What are the positive innovations that the CBOs have introduced over the last ten years and can those ideas be applied elsewhere?

Toilet Block Dharavi Mumbai
One of the toilet blocks in Dharavi that have created public gardens surrounding the building. Photo © SPARC

Maps can be powerful tools to visually communicate these insights. For example, the map could be used to illustrate the correlation between particular issues and the site conditions that have led to them.  They can also help form the basis for new proposals. SPARC is also seeking to obtain infrastructure maps of Mumbai so it can juxtapose the toilet blocks it has mapped with existing sewage and water connections to inform new proposals for city-wide interventions.

Mapping toilets Mumbai Google Earth
The mapped community toilets in various wards throughout Mumbai as they appear over the Google Earth satellite imagery

What is the significance of carrying out this review? There are a few unique opportunities presented in this process. The first allows SPARC to gaining valuable insight into the challenges of community management and maintenance, and also into innovative solutions produced by some proactive CBOs. Beyond their own gain, the second opportunity allows them to share and discuss the survey results amongst the various toilet CBOs, the municipality and also to learn from PRATHA, the other NGO that constructed toilet blocks during MSDP 1. In the discussion and collaborations amongst these groups, there is also an opportunity to present key recommendations and principles that can lead to policy changes and improvements in practice.

Reviewing and documenting sanitation projects has been a part of SPARC’s strategy since before the MSDP began. As a practice, documenting past projects consolidates the organization’s learning experiences and helps guide future projects for greater and better impact. SPARC is committed to sharing their insights with a network of other Federations and NGOs. When NGOs work together in this manner, they have the ability to sharpen each other’s tools and improve collective knowledge, making their practice more relevant and innovative than if they had worked independently.

* The Indian Alliance is a partnership between three organizations: SPARC, NSDF and Mahila Milan. NSDF, the National Slum Dwellers Federation was formed by a group of residents in response to a dramatic eviction of their community in the 1970s, when nearly 70,000 people were evicted during the night from Janata Colony in Mumbai. Their goal was to advocate for basic rights and amenities. By 1986, NSDF joined with SPARC, an NGO working at that time with pavement-dwellers, alongside Mahila Milan (which means “Women Together”), a decentralized network of women’s saving collectives. The three then became known as the Indian Alliance.

With special thanks to Keya Kunte of SPARC for editing

All photos not specified © Allison Koornneef


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