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November 19: World Toilet Day. A much-needed spotlight on India's wastewater management

Today, we witness nations working hard to achieve their SDGs, and the way forward is the Digital Public Good Infrastructure (DPI). Digital Public Goods (DPGs), if built and implemented suitably, can create scalable, sustainable, generational leaps in social development.

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By Vipasyana Reddy, Program manager - Sanitation mission, eGovernments Foundation

As per the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out six years of progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) globally.

Speaking of SDG 6, it’s quite astonishing to see that, in this world of technology and progress, billions of people worldwide do not have access to one of life's greatest necessities - clean water. SDG 6 encompasses the provision of access to “adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all.” Despite government and relief organisations’ efforts to support people living in water-stressed areas, the issue is expected to be further aggravated due to global warming and population growth.

It is imperative to recognize that SDG 6 is not only about drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene, but also the quality and sustainability of water resources, which are vital to the survival of humanity and our planet. The United Nations 2030 Agenda recognizes the central importance of water to sustainable development and the important role that improved drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene plays in areas such as health, education, and poverty reduction. Faecal Sludge Management (FSM) is key at this point, as there is a strong possibility for human waste to contaminate drinking water resources and increase epidemics.

Today, we witness nations working hard to achieve their SDGs, and the way forward is the Digital Public Good Infrastructure (DPI). Digital Public Goods (DPGs), if built and implemented suitably, can create scalable, sustainable, generational leaps in social development. We have seen the use of DPGs to combat the COVID -19 pandemic by building platforms supporting verifiable credentials,

provision of tamper-proof certification, dismantling barriers to travel and trade, and creating common standards and principles to enable secure payments and data exchanges. Using DPI to achieve SDG 6 is therefore the way to go.

According to a 2019 NITI Aayog report, India ranks 120 out of 122 countries in the water quality index, with approximately 70% of water being contaminated. Several reasons for India being one of the most water-stressed countries include overpopulation, pollution, and groundwater exploitation. As a result of these factors, wastewater management has become a major concern. Through the pandemic, India has shown robust technological advancement; and it is widely accepted that the utilization of digital interventions and open-source digital public goods will solve the problems in faecal sludge management, thus ensuring zero untreated waste.

The use of open-source Digital Public Goods to achieve SDG-6 in sanitation in India is of utmost importance. In order to improve the lives of citizens, it is necessary to work with an ecosystem of stakeholders such as governments, administrators, businesses, academia, research institutions, and civil society organisations. Such collaborative efforts can ensure the DPGs drive positive outcomes and play a pivotal role in building a resilient society.

Several FSM digitisation initiatives undertaken by Indian urban local bodies (ULB’s) using DPGs in recent years have resulted in the recycling and reuse of wastewater gradually gaining traction. The use of treated wastewater has, in fact, been encouraged for non-potable purposes such as industrial use, car washing, gardening, construction, and more.

The Sanitation Mission at eGov Foundation aims to make its vision of “zero deaths, disease, and environmental contamination resulting from poor sanitation” a reality for every citizen in the global south, by progressively reforming the current sanitation systems which fail to deliver against this vision. At the core of all systemic challenges, there are a few problems that hinder a systemic change, limit someone from bringing a change, or cause the system to collapse. Transformations based on Digital Public Goods serve to enhance e-governance and are the light at the end of the tunnel, especially in sanitation.

In Odisha, the Digital Infrastructure for Sustainable and Healthy Habitats (DISHHA), an open digital platform, has been built as a digital public good for multiple waste streams in sanitation. The platform aims to strengthen operational efficiency and performance monitoring of faecal sludge management, improve capacity planning and usage of physical infrastructure, enable easy compliance, and advance equity and access for marginalised communities.

The UN target 6.3 includes the statement: ‘by 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimising the release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater, and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally.’ This objective can be propelled by catalysing open digital ecosystems to unlock immense value; while placing human rights and inclusion at the centre of digital transformation and digital cooperation. DPGs are the way of the future, and the same is true of SDG 6 in India.

About eGov Foundation

Established in 2003 by Nandan Nilekani and Srikanth Nadhamuni, eGovernments Foundation works to partner with state governments and city administrators to leverage the transformative power of technology to consistently and sustainably improve the quality of life in Indian cities.

The foundation is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Nandan Nilekani Philanthropies, Omidyar Network India and Tata Trusts.

Over the last 19 years, eGov has worked with 14 states, in more than 2500+ towns and cities, to build a thriving, digitally-enabled ecosystem impacting the lives of 16Cr+ citizens across India and to ensure that every citizen in every city of India is able to access all the services they need with ease and transparency.

eGov plays the role of a trusted advisor and enabler of state leadership by collaborating with all actors in the ecosystem including policy advisors, technology and civic tech partners to enable the government entities to successfully implement their urban transformation programs.

Driven by a long-term vision, the DIGIT platform - a public digital good created by eGov, provides opportunities for co-creation and a potential for scaling up diverse solutions to resolving urban challenges with speed and at scale.

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