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Habitat Observatory

    Innovative and Appropriate Waste Management Technologies at Work
  “We used to be appalled by the constant overflowing of the septic tank, and when rains set in there was no way we could avoid the flow of dirt and contaminated rain water. We were living in an awful smelling home environment due to the malfunctioning toilets which had maintenance issues," said Premawathie about how Welsonpura urban settlement in Sri Lanka used to be. She and her daughter live in the tiny house opposite the public toilets and septic tank.

Owing to voluntary efforts of the Welsonpura community as part of an integrated urban development project facilitated by Practical Action, Sri Lanka, a lasting solution to the sewage treatment problem has been found while also enabling residents’ access to an alternative energy source through the introduction of a biogas unit.

Located within the Galle district city limits, the town of Welsonpura is home to 210 people—predominantly vendors and wage labourers without access to basic infrastructure and service facilities. Only five homes have a toilet each, while the rest of the population uses two public toilets (equipped with six units each): one for the men and one for the women. The public toilets were in dire need of repair and an effective solution to the issue of sewage overflow from the septic tank into the neighbourhood. Rocky soil in the area made matters worse, preventing the absorption of sewage from the toilets. Whenever the septic tank overflowed, the municipal council did not have sufficient resources and technology for proper cleanup. Some of the equipment, such as gully bowsers for sewage transport, failed to reach the public toilets, which were located at a considerable distance away from the nearest motor-able road.

The public toilets have now been redesigned and renovated through participation from residents of the town. Welsonpura’s bio-latrines employ a “dry toilet” technology that does not require the excessive water expenditures typical of flush toilets. Rather than being released into the ground, waste is collected into a storage tank and processed to produce organic manure suitable for use as fertliser. As the waste biodegrades, the digester captures methane gas that is used for lighting and cooking. Apart from digesting human waste, the biogas unit also provides households with a facility for the disposal of kitchen waste—a solution that is made possible by sorting decomposable organic materials.

As a result of revolutionising Welsonpura’s sanitation facilities, five families now also have access to biogas, which they purchase for a nominal sum of Rs 500 on a monthly basis. These households are seeing the benefit of energy savings. Eshani Rasikas explains that they are "very glad to have access to biogas in our household as it brings us a saving nearly twice as much on firewood and kerosene for cooking. It's me my husband and three children who live at home." Further, Rs. 500 collected from the five families contributes to a community welfare fund that is used for the maintenance of the biogas unit and public toilets.

Living standards of Welsonpura’s occupants have undergone a positive change through an improvement in hygiene, sanitation and the introduction of an alternative energy supply by means of the biogas unit. Awareness-raising has also led communities of the surrounding area to understand that they have an important role to play in keeping the environment clean.

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    Owner-driven Reconstruction: Personal Responsibility and Empowerment
  People know their own habitat needs. This essential principle forms the core of the owner-driven reconstruction movement—a crucial part of advocacy work for basin-South Asia member UNNATI – Organisation for Development Education.

The idea of owner-driven reconstruction first came onto the Asian post-disaster scene over a decade ago, but ensuring process and outcome ownership by the people has required a paradigm shift in the disaster management framework. After the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, a number of villages were slotted for rebuilding by external agencies. The people said “no”—and insisted on catering to their own local needs, rather than permitting top-down interventions. This led to 30,000 homes being built in the state of Gujarat through an owner-driven, state-sponsored programme, during post-earthquake reconstruction efforts.

Owner-driven reconstruction takes today’s basin spotlight, elucidated by UNNATI’s Founder and Director Binoy Acharya, who specialises in promoting local governance, inclusive development and empowerment. Citizens’ control over rebuilding their dwellings after a devastating natural disaster yields socially, economically and ecologically sustainable results. It also ensures the owners’ sense of personal satisfaction when dwellings are built as per their requirements, and self-supervision leads to psychosocial recovery and restoration of shaken confidence levels.

UNNATI is one of the core group members of the Owner Driven Reconstruction Collaborative (ODRC) – a network of civil society organisations, members associated with national and state level disaster management authorities as well as government and UN agencies. Mr. Acharya and his colleagues at UNNATI are seeing pay-offs for their continued advocacy of owner-driven reconstruction with the different state governments of India. ODRC has been invited by the state government of Bihar to facilitate the Koshi flood reconstruction programme in the first pilot phase. This programme has been scaled up by the Government of Bihar to build 30,000 disaster-safe homes in the state with the financial support of the World Bank.

For UNNATI, this post-earthquake development is historically pivotal. Since then, agencies such as Kutchh Nav Nairman Abhiyan, Hunarshala, People in Center, SEEDS and many others have set out on a mission to promote owner-driven reconstruction. These partners value rebuilding efforts that place people at the center and recruit the assistance of external agencies for technical support. The reasons for this preference are clear: when outside agencies import external technology, materials and architecture, their solutions lack local relevance. Using locally available materials cuts down on transportation costs and harmful emissions.

Sustainability of the structures is ensured by the fact that when damage results, local materials are readily available for repairs and replacement. Hiring local masons and artisans also contributes to employment creation and economic development of disaster-stricken communities. Finally, owners’ participation in building their homes results in empowering participatory learning processes and capacity building.

In the state of Bihar, where ODRC provided the mechanisms and technologies for 2008 post-flood reconstruction overseen by village and owner committees, a return to using a traditional construction material—bamboo—has become a green alternative. Bamboo cultivation is a source of livelihoods that prevents the destruction of forests. Formerly, the use of bamboo in construction was on the decline, as bamboo tended to decay after two decades of use. Now, the life of treated bamboo is nearly five times longer (up to 100 years!), permitting the use of this traditional staple in vernacular architecture.

People’s decision-making power regarding their own homes is not only a matter or moral and political imperative—meeting local needs by local means is a giant step toward sustainable, green habitat creation.

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