Toilets, Poop, and Sanitation at the Kumbh Mela
By Stephanie Cheng, PharmD, MPH Candidate 2013 – Harvard School of Public Health
When I found out that I was going to the Kumbh Mela to map toilets and sanitation at the Kumbh, I wouldn’t say I was exactly jumping for joy and cringed slightly at the thought of wandering around the Kumbh taking pictures of toilets and asking strangers personal questions about their bathroom habits. Not exactly a glamorous topic. However, considering the massive scale of migration of people from all over the world to this relatively small and compact area, water and sanitation becomes a huge public health issue in terms of preventing the spread of diseases, particularly those associated with waste and improper sanitation such as cholera.
The water and sanitation team, which consisted of Dr. Richard Cash, Candace Brown and myself from Harvard School of Public Health and Leila Shayegan from Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences, would not proclaim ourselves as experts on toilets. However by the end of our visit, we could confidently identify the various types of bathroom facilities. The variety of facilities takes into consideration the fact that pilgrims come from all sorts of backgrounds and are use to a wide variety of toilets. A sign designates which toilets are for males and which are for females.
The most primitive bathroom facility is termed a “flag area.” The flag area consisted of just an open area that is enclosed by a fence where a person can go about their business anywhere within this designated area.
There are also roadside urinals (top) and pit toilets for defecation (bottom) that do not require water to flush the system.
Planning, Research and Action Institute (PRAI) latrines can also be found grouped together. These types of latrines are indirect pit latrine with a pipe that has a water seal and requires water to flush the system. One set of 20 stalls can be built and be fully functional in 48 hours.
As an initiative of the Green Kumbh, two new types of toilets have been introduced for the first time at this Kumbh. The Zero Discharge Toilet System (top) and the Eco-Friendly Bio-Toilet (bottom).
Surprisingly, with the sheer number of toilet facilities around the Kumbh, it did not smell bad at all. This is because a large fleet of workers is employed to keep these facilities clean and odor free by cleaning and spraying disinfectant multiple times a day. When asking people about the various toilets, there was an overwhelming positive response to the cleanliness of these facilities. The only negative responses we received pertained to the design of the urinals not being very private and the small size of the stalls in the Eco-Friendly Bio-Toilet, which makes it difficult to maneuver when inside one of the stalls.
The majority of the water used for drinking and cooking at the Kumbh is from ground water that is pumped daily through tube wells that are 350 meters deep and then treated with chlorine. There are a total of 46 tube wells and 600 km of pipeline throughout the Kumbh Mela site. The system has a capacity to pump 92 million liters per day of water during peak bathing days. On a normal non-bathing day, 10 tube wells are open and pump approximately 2 million liters per day of water.
By the end of this trip, I have come to appreciate the efforts that have gone into water and sanitation. I will admit that I am no longer afraid to talk to people about toilets and poop. Overall, the officials in charge of water and sanitation have done a good job in organizing, coordinating, and building all of these facilities in such a short period of time to accommodate millions of people. Lessons from the Kumbh can be used to help improve water and sanitation systems in other pop-up cities.