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Discussing challenges and opportunities for sustainable toilet use

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To share evaluation findings from the Improving HABIT (Households’ Attitudes and Behaviours to Increase Toilet use) intervention implemented in rural Bihar, OPM India co-hosted the Sustaining toilet use: the next frontier of sanitation policy workshop. This event brought together development practitioners, researchers, and policymakers within water, sanitation, and hygiene sector to discuss recommendations for improving sanitation policy in Bihar, India.

Our team presented key insights from the project, including lessons around toilet design, waste management, gender, and social norms. Our findings suggest a significant increase in the use of toilets, following their construction and activities under the Government’s Swachh Bharat Mission.

Despite the increase in usage, sustainability of toilet use remains a concern, given the persisting underlying misconceptions around pit filling, and a lack of awareness about the process of decomposition – outcomes which our intervention was able to influence.

Shruti Viswanathan, consultant in OPM's public sector governance team

Sustaining toilet usage is critical for improving sanitation practices in Bihar, and eradicating open defecation. Associate Director of World Vision India Satya Pramanik identified consistent use of behaviour change communications as key for improving the sustainability of toilet use, including engaging with community and faith leaders to boost toilet usage and foster both behavioural and attitudinal change.

Satya Pramanik, Associate Director of World Vision India

Most of the communication campaigns promoting toilet use are focused on women and emphasise themes like dignity and safety. Our study found that the reported toilet use among women was high, while this was not the case with men. As such, it is important to include whole communities in these discussions, and making sure sanitation policies reflect changing circumstances.

Ashish Kumar, Gender Resource Centre, Govt. of Bihar

Ashish Kumar from Gender Resource Centre emphasised upon ‘value-for-money’ concept and the need to review investments in sanitation vis-à-vis changes it has brought in the community. WASH specialist from UNICEF Bihar, Prabhakar Sinha drew attention to the fact that a major population of Bihar is first-generation toilet users. Considering the behavioural barriers, they need to be engaged with on sustainable toilet use.

Supporting the Government of India’s commitment to eradicating open defecation practice, the workshop participants recommend the second phase of the Swachh Bharat Mission focuses on:

  • increasing knowledge and attitudes related to pit filling, time taken for decomposition, and the importance of self-emptying. This will greatly contribute to sustainability of toilet use and enhance public health gains without unintentionally increasing caste-based emptying.
  • increasing the emphasis of programme implementers and policymakers on standardised construction of toilet pits, minimising inconsistency in type and size. The vastly varying size and quality of pits makes it difficult to tailor standardised messaging around pit filling, resulting in conflicting and potentially incorrect messages.

The workshop participants also focused on waste management in sanitation, such as emptying, transfer, and recycling of faecal waste. Satyajit Ghosh from WaterAid India highlighted the need for contextualising sustainable toilet use with faecal waste management – including retrofitting, consistent behavioural pattern, and establishing low-cost on-site solution for sewer systems as key strategies for this.

Satyajit Ghosh, WaterAid India

State government in Bihar sees municipal solid waste management, sustainable sanitation, and improving information, education, and communication around sanitation as key components for the success of the Swachcha Bharat Mission. As such, scaling up community ownership, improving monitoring, and implementing behaviour change communications, along with increased technology, will be crucial elements to address faecal waste management and sanitation sustainability of government policy.