Overcoming the Barriers for Improved WASH for Slums in India

  • While technically illegal, many slums in India have moved towards being recognised as legitimate sites of housing and livelihoods.
  • Efforts towards providing durable WASH services to transform the overall health and environment of people residing in slums in India could be scaled up.
  • To cater to the local geographic, societal, economic and institutional context and needs, close cooperation with all stakeholders and innovative approaches can yield positive results.

In India, one out of five persons living in cities resides in slums. These areas constitute the highest density in the cities, generally home to more than 500 dwelling units per hectare.  The inhabitants there are usually the most vulnerable ones as they partially lack, or are completely cut off from basic water and sanitation infrastructure. While technically illegal, many slums in India have moved towards being recognised as legitimate sites of housing and livelihoods and focus has shifted to providing ‘basic civic services’ like drinking water supply, sewerage, solid waste disposal and street lighting. The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) also focussed on building toilets regardless of whether the beneficiary lives in an authorised/unauthorised colony or a notified/non-notified slum.

However, Urban Local Bodies (ULBs), Public Health Engineering Departments (PHEDs), NGOs and service providers) that are providing improved WASH facilities to slums, could focus much more on following ‘long term sustainable aspects’ to transform the overall health and environment of people residing in slums in India. From the work I do, the following points stand out most poignantly:

1. Engaging stakeholders for an on-ground reality check is key 

In most cases limited data is available on ground realities, leading to implementation that does not adequately address the problem. For example,  the city of Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu, where 27 per cent of people live in slums, a large number of Community Toilets Blocks (CTBs) were provided by the local body, but as these blocks were not maintained well, no one used them. The situation turned around only when local NGOs mobilised the communities to renovate and take over management of CTBs. Involving a wide range of stakeholders right from the conception of a project helps in implementing a sustainable solution.

2. Maximizing accessibility and sustaining it is critical

Many residents of informal settlements rely on shared infrastructure. As per the National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO) Housing Data, more than 50 per cent of households collect drinking water from common sources. In the absence of adequate public services, slums in cities like Hyderabad, Mumbai, New Delhi, and Visakhapatnam depend largely on alternate sources of water such as stand posts and tankers to supplement their daily water needs. The inadequate, inconsistent and poor quality of water supply results in reduced work and school attendance due to health issues.  There is a need to focus on both a) ‘accessibility’ (bringing supplies closer to people’s homes) and b) ‘reliability’ (continuity of supply).

3. Inclusive and gender responsive interventions are essential

Women and girls are most often the primary users, providers and managers of water in a typical slum household. Accessing water and sanitation in slums poses the dual risk of increased disease incidence, on one hand, and personal safety, security and dignity on the other. Poor choice of location, inappropriate design and inadequate maintenance of Community Toilets (CTs) are the main constraints for females using these sanitation services. To overcome these barriers and create fully inclusive facilities, a few recent initiatives have been undertaken in this regard, including the launch of female-friendly toilets in Hyderabad, Delhi and Pune by WaterAid. This goes hand in hand with women’s empowerment initiatives. The NGO Gramalaya has documented successful Water Credit Programs for women to pay for household toilets, with the loans implemented in a two- stage process through neighbourhood Women’s Self-Help Groups.

4. The spatial factor needs to be taken into account 

As per NSSO, slums in India are often situated in geographically and environmentally hazardous areas like flood plains, near landfill sites or low-lying areas. This heightens the risk of flooding and generally increases their vulnerability to climate change-induced events. For instance, residents of Sangam Vihar (an informal settlement in South Delhi) often find their roads flooded (sometimes 3-4 feet deep) for days during the monsoon. The excess runoff mixes with solid waste and domestic wastewater creating extremely unhygienic conditions. This is further exacerbated by unplanned urbanisation, poor structural quality of buildings and a lack of proper drainage control.

Moreover, the high-density urban fabric poses additional technical challenges like narrow streets that make it difficult for utilities and service providers to access infrastructure for repairs or maintenance, including pit emptying. The spatial aspect, therefore, is a key decisive factor and cannot be overlooked when determining WASH strategies for slums.

5. Understanding affordability is not an option 

Households in informal settlements often pay higher costs for water and sanitation services than their richer counterparts in planned urban areas. Delhi and Hyderabad experimented with Water Kiosks and ATMs to provide safe drinking water in 2012, but received mixed responses, particularly due to a low willingness to pay amongst slum dwellers. The standard pay-and-use service put a burden on women who may not have independent incomes or control over household decision making. Hence, before assessing any revenue models, it is essential to conduct willingness-to-pay surveys in consultation with all key stakeholders and at different locations of the oftentimes vast slums. This is necessary to ensure that the tariffs are affordable for all consumers, and backed up with subsidies for service providers to run the system and meet performance targets.

6. Unfolding innovative practices is a game-changer

Model or pilot projects can help achieve sustainable innovative water sensitive features. This can be in line with providing decentralised water management models (from ward level to slum or basti levels) in accordance with the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act. A consortium led by Australia’s Monash University provided the blueprint for ecologically and economically sustainable water and sanitation solutions for one billion people living in urban slums. They worked in collaboration with local engineers, contractors, governments and community organisations for 24 informal settlements in Fiji and Indonesia, to turn informal settlements into independent sites that: recycle their own wastewater; harvest rainwater; create green space for water cleansing and food cultivation and restore natural waterways to improve biodiversity and deal with flooding. 

7. Institutional reforms for sustainability shall be incorporated

Apart from providing WASH services, slums need to be supported with arrangements to upkeep, maintain and repair the respective infrastructure, including taps, community toilets, septic tanks and drainage channels. The communities need to be informed and educated through appropriate Information, Education and Communication (IEC) models to ensure that user behaviour practices are adopted for the conservation of water and to use safe sanitation systems effectively.

This is usually accompanied with institutional reforms, which include clearly defining roles of various state actors; formation of dedicated newer utilities or special purpose vehicles for specific functions; strengthening institutions at the ULB level; building or provisioning technical assistance; seeking partnerships with the private sector and establishing regulatory mechanisms. This can mean establishing a dedicated utility team to serve low-income areas and to equip it with the resources to improve access for low-income residents. For instance, the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC) formed an Informal Settlements Department (ISD) in 2007.


Views expressed are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of WaterSciencePolicy.


Shivali is an Architect and Environmental Planner by profession. She leads the Capacity Building Programme of Water Programme at CSE in South Asia and Africa as a Programme Manager. Shivali works extensively in the area of Water Sensitive Urban Design and Planning (WSUDP). Through regular hand-holding training programmes, she disseminates the knowledge on WSUDP to different stakeholders working towards sustainable development within their cities. She is also involved in developing periodic research outputs focussing on technical design guidelines on water and sanitation subjects for government and private practitioners.

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