Sanitation is about maintaining public health. It is closely related to the provision of clean drinking water but is also about dealing with waste, particularly sewage. Adequate sanitation provision is vital to keeping people healthy and, with more people living closer together, is increasingly important in human development.

The buildup of human waste (sewage) can cause disease and preventable fatalities. It needs to be treated and managed to prevent it building up and causing unsanitary living conditions. The infrastructure required to manage sewage can be referred to as sanitation infrastructure. Sanitation infrastructure options can either treat urine and faeces separately or treat the two waste products together, often with wastewater from other facilities such as showers, sinks and washing machines. Treatment can take place at the household level, for example by using a septic tank, or via collection from multiple locations for centralised treatment, as happens in most parts of the UK. Treatment technologies use various methods ranging from mechanised and chemical systems to using natural biological processes. Waste produced during menstruation also needs to be treated.

In rural Tamil Nadu, the practice of open defecation is commonplace due to a lack of facilities, a cultural perception that open defecation is cleaner and more hygienic than using toilets, and issues with who will deal with the waste due to the caste system. Women and men have separate and defined areas for defecating, often on surrounding agricultural land and they tend to go first thing in the morning and last thing at night when there is a reduced risk of intrusion from passers by. For women, this practice is particularly uncomfortable as they will often wait until these two time slots for urination as well, whereas men are more able to go throughout the day.

Attitudes towards open defecation are changing due to awareness raising programmes highlighting the links between this practice, poor water quality and the spread of disease but to date there still remains poor provision of sanitation infrastructure to address this issue. Explore the information below and see if you can suggest ideas to improve the situation.

For more information including details of the current situation and existing initiatives: go to Engineering For People Design Challenge: SANITATION
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  1. Open defecation

    Open defecation is commonplace throughout rural Tamil Nadu and presents a risk to health through the contamination of food and water. Can you propose a solution that would improve the management of human waste whilst respecting the traditions of the people of Tamil Nadu?

  2. Dealing with human waste

    Dealing with human waste is a issue that is reducing the success rate of improved sanitation facilities as they are often not emptied when full. Can you think of ways in which human waste could be better dealt with to overcome this social stigma?

  3. Dealing with waste from sanitary products

    Waste from the use of plastic sanitary pads is increasingly becoming an issue. Can you propose ideas for how it can be better dealt with or alternatives to these plastic sanitary pads?

  4. Farmers use of human waste

    Due to water scarcity issues, some farmers actively use human waste as a source of water for their crops. Unfortunately this results in contamination of food leading to illness amongst consumers and the farmers themselves. Can you propose ways that the farmers might be able to better use this resource safely?