How to rescue a public toilet?

Improved toilet in Kamitole public market, Nepal

This is the story of Urmila BK, a resident of Nepal’s Chandannath municipality, where the Kamitole public toilet is located. Through Urmila’s leadership, the public toilet has seen numerous improvements. Here we highlight the importance for individuals to be agents of change and the need for more formal governance structures to repair a broken sanitation system.

In explaining why she ended up serving as a toilet steward, 25-year old market entrepreneur Urmila said, ‘I decided to start a small shop for my livelihood. Because I had no financial means to rent space in a good location, I set  up shop next to the market’s toilet.’

But when Urmila set up her shop, she found the Kamitole public toilet, which services market goers and the nearby Dalit [1] settlement, completely run down. Taps, buckets, and the toilet slabs were broken. People from the community often refused to contribute financially to toilet maintenance. As such, there was hardly any money available to settle the water bill, buy cleaning supplies, let alone pay the services of the former toilet caretaker.

handwashing station before

State of handwashing station before improvements

Newly built handwashing station

Improved handwashing station with flowing water

A dysfunctional public toilet service

It was very sad to see the miserable condition there,’ said Urmila. She added, ‘it was a foul-smelling toilet with used sanitary pads and cigarettes strewn all over dirty and broken flooring. It did not have handwashing facilities. No one thought that the tank needed emptying. No one thought about the repair and maintenance work that needed to be done.’

Besides the severely limited budgets available for toilet maintenance and cleanliness, the toilet’s location and structure were less than optimal. The toilet was located in the upper floor of the public market, with no direction markers to help newcomers find it. The main entrance to the toilet, due to the absence of a physical gate, turned it into a garbage dump for the market.

Because her shop was next to the toilet, out of necessity, Urmila had to take action herself or risk losing customers.

Urmila's shop by the improved toilet's entrance

Urmila's shop by the improved toilet's entrance

Community meeting with the TSS for upgradation support

Community meeting with the TSS for upgradation support

Individuals demanding  better services and accountability

Urmila was conscious that cleaning the sub-standard toilet herself and going door-to-door asking households to contribute to the toilet’s upkeep were not sustainable. She knew that she didn't have to address this sanitation challenge alone; there was the newly constituted community-based Tole Sudhar Samittee (TSS, Hamlet Improvement Committee) [2] that could lend support.

As a result, the market/settlement received urgent technical and financial sanitation assistance. These included:

  • basic training on public toilet operation and maintenance and the safe and proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE), making toilet cleaning work safer and more effective;

  • septic tank emptying, with support from the Jumla Chamber of Commerce and Industry: sludge was pumped into the nearby pit for co-composting and use in a Fuji apple orchard;

  • new hygiene and cleaning materials, including dustbins for menstrual waste, buckets and jugs;

  • installation of facilities, such as hand washing basins with soaps, piped water, grey water drainage, vent pipes and chimneys for solid waste incineration, and an iron gate at the main entrance to keep the toilet from being a dumping ground; and

  • strategically placed informative posters on proper hand washing, toilet location, toilet use, and toilet use fees.

On the building's wall: sanitation value chain explained in visuals

On the building's wall: sanitation value chain explained in visuals

A structural response needed to sustain achievements

Today, people can use the Kamitole public toilet safely and with dignity. An estimated 300 people from the 50 households in the Dalit settlement now have access to a better-managed public toilet, plus countless passers-by. Market goers and passers-by willingly pay to use the toilet. Households from the settlement are meeting their monthly dues. All these achievements would not have been secured without community-public-private partnerships.

Market visitor paying toilet user fee

Market visitor paying toilet user fee

But the monthly income generated from the toilet (estimated at Rs 5,000/month) is still not enough to maintain the sanitation service. And even while there is increased user satisfaction over Urmila’s voluntary management, she noted that operations could further be improved. Running a toilet – even in today’s improved conditions – also poses challenges to her own health and her family’s, but her options are limited. ‘I must constantly improve and manage it because it is linked to my livelihood,’ she explained.

So, as we celebrate heroes like Urmila, we should not forget that to transform systems, we need an enabling environment of institutional frameworks, national/local government, private sector collaboration, and community-based groups like the TSS to sustain and scale-up up progress. Heroes like Urmila, whilst much-needed, cannot carry the burden of addressing broken or sub-standard systems in the long term.

Written by: Sabitra Dhakal (GESI Advisor) and Nanda Dharala (City Officer, Jumla), SNV in Nepal with Anjani Abella (Marketing Communications Advisor, WASH, SNV)
[1] Dalits, according to the Dalit Welfare Organization, ‘are the de facto “untouchables” of contemporary Nepal. Dalit refers to a group of people who are religiously, culturally, socially, economically and historically oppressed, excluded and treated as untouchables.’
[2] The TSS is a community-based group that collaborates with their respective Ward WASH Coordination Committee and Rural Municipality to improve planning and implementation of water, sanitation and hygiene initiatives.