Toilet-trained in Nepal
The tactile pavement leads into a reception area inside a cylinder-shaped red brick building. The user pays Rs10, and the staff hands out a token for turnstiles that lead into the male and female lavatories.
Visitors do a double take. This looks more like the entrance to the London Underground than a public toilet in Kathmandu. The shiny new facility has motion-detector flushes, taps with sensors, a diaper-changing station, turbo-fan ventilation and a menstrual hygiene dispenser for tampons.
The effluent goes into a biogas digester, rainwater from the roof is harvested in this new toilet plan that is being built across the Valley. The design was selected among top five projects at the Sarphati Sanitation Challenge during World Water Week this year.
“Our priority is to operate public toilets sustainably and hygienically, and making latrines comfortable, especially for women and people with disabilities,” says Prakash Amatya of Aerosan Sustainable Sanitation that has built six model public toilets ‘hubs’ in Baneswor, Mangal Bazar, Buddha Park, Tripureswor, Ratna Park.
In 1980, only 2% of Nepali homes had toilets. By 2018, 97% of Nepalis had latrine facilities, and this improved hygiene and sanitation leading to a dramatic decrease in gastric infections, typhoid and other diseases, especially among children.
Last year, amidst much fanfare, Nepal was declared ‘Open Defecation Free’, but the problem of sanitation and water-borne diseases persist.
Many schools, for example, have toilets but no water for hand-washing. The facilities are poorly maintained, and so dirty that students prefer the outdoors.
Functioning faecal sludge treatment plants are limited and with overflowing septic tanks and mismanaged household sewage systems, the waste often ends up in rivers.
Across villages in Nepal, latrines built by local governments have been turned into storage space for neighbourhoods. Many in the Tarai still prefer to defecate in nearby fields.
The problem is even more pronounced in the case of public toilets. Only a third of the 84 public toilets in Kathmandu are operational and even those remain unhygienic and poorly maintained. Most of the waste is left untreated and is often overflowing from septic tanks.
Now, the municipalities in the Valley are out to change that with the new model toilets. Aerosan’s designs incorporate an underground anaerobic bio-digester tank which turns the effluent into methane. The biofuel generated by the public toilet in Swayambhu, for example, is used by a nearby tea stand.
The interior design is made as touch-free and hygienic as possible, and Aerosan has installed flushes that use minimal water. The facilities are also women and disability-friendly, conforming to international safety and cleanliness standards.
The ‘hubs’ now sees 500 customers a day, of which 59% are women compared to 13% in other public toilets.
Amatya is aware that maintenance and sustainability are key for any public facility in Nepal, which is why the toilets pay for themselves, and are managed with strict protocols for operations and hygiene.
“The major reason public toilets are not maintained or are dirty in Nepal is because cleaning and sanitation jobs are frowned upon and are reserved for those from the so-called lower castes. We are trying to change that outlook by dignifying the job,” adds Amatya.
The company employs 20 people at its six ‘hubs’, with each facility assigned three cleaners who are provided with gloves, personal protection equipment, work shoes, and other necessary equipment.
Trained in sanitation, each staff member is also ensured paid leave, medical insurance, a smartphone, and a monthly salary starting from Rs15,000. Aerosan has also established the Sanitation Workers’ Cooperative to help staff and marginalised communities through work placement programs.
The government provides the land for the hubs, and the construction is financed through local municipal taxes. For now, Aerosan relies on grants to pay for the toilet fittings staff salaries.
Aerosan is now working to mobilise more public finance to build the model hubs outside Kathmandu, and is looking at locations in Pokhara, Biratnagar, and on highway waypoints which are notorious for the lack of proper latrines.
Says Amatya: “We need legal frameworks to maintain standards and norms in all public toilets, incentivise their use, and monitor management. Only then will we achieve sanitation and health for all in Nepal.”