Access to sanitation (sewage disposal and clean drinking water) is essential to human dignity, health and well-being, yet 2 billion people lack access to sanitation facilities. Poor sanitation is estimated to cause half a million deaths each year due to diarrhea.
In mega cities and rural areas, many practice open defecation, or defecating in fields, bushes, forests, or open bodies of water rather than a toilet or latrine. Open defecation poses a serious threat to human health and wellbeing, exposing communities to increased risk of disease and malnutrition and women to attack and violence. The World Health Organization has called for an end to open defecation worldwide by 2025. However, in mega cities there is little to no space for toilets, especially in informal settlements, and in rural communities open defecation is embedded in the culture or families lack access to private or public latrines. In India, open defecation is commonly practiced despite many government schemes to end it.
With support from the Community for Global Health Equity, University at Buffalo students Rosy Zel, Hemanta Adhikari, and Pemba Sherpa, traveled to India to participate in the Amrita Live-in-Labs program in January 2019. Live-in-Labs was established in 2013 to provide multidisciplinary experiential learning that results in research, development, and deployment of sustainable solutions for local communities. Amrita faculty and students, in collaboration with international universities, form teams to study, design, test, and implement solutions to a particular challenge facing a community.
While in India, Rosy, Hemanta, and Pemba collaborated with a team of local students and faculty to understand open defecation practices in a small, rural community. With partners from Amrita, they worked in a rural community gathering data via surveys, workshops, and observations, on the conditions of available toilets and the reasons community members do not use them.
Some of the major barriers that prevented the community members from utilizing toilets was lack of electricity and access to water. In response, Amrita University students are currently implementing a sustainable water distribution system. Critical to any public health behavior change, Rosy, Pemba, and Hemanta recommended that a health awareness campaign that includes information about open defecation vs. toilet use and proper maintenance of toilets accompany the implementation of technology.
According to Rosy, Pemba, and Hemanta, “As students in public health and biological sciences, we really appreciated the opportunity to learn about important public health issues. Being part of the live-in labs program with Amrita University gave us the opportunity to collaborate and work with students from diverse backgrounds to address a major global health issue. This truly was a remarkable experience that allowed all three of us to step outside of our comfort zone and be a part of something bigger. Through this experience, we had the opportunity to integrate our skills and knowledge in a new context for the good of all.”
Amrita University’s Live-In-Labs are 101 villages in rural India, where Student Researchers live, assess the local community’s challenges, and apply their educational training in the creation and testing of potential solutions. The central aim of Live-In-Labs is to find ways to integrate education into day to day life, and in so doing, to foster strategic planning (rather than mere survival) in rural communities. To that end, students work in interdisciplinary teams to apply and implement theoretical knowledge.