Evaluating WaSH conditions spatially at the panchayat level
Synthesis of water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) spatial pattern in rural India: an integrated interpretation of WaSH practices
People in rural areas lack potable water, and use unsafe sanitation and hygiene facilities (Image: Sebastian Dahl)

Rural areas largely lack access to improved drinking water-sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) facilities in India. Improved WaSH facilities are vital to prevent the transmission of waterborne diseases and create resilient communities. Keeping this in mind, the international community designed sustainable development goals (SDG6) to solve this global issue.

The tremendous success achieved by India because of the Government of India’s flagship programs such as Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), Total Sanitation Campaign, the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP), WaSH in schools and health facilities at the state and district level. SBM has led to wide-scale construction of toilets to end the open defecation across the country by providing financial support to below poverty households, landless laborers, small and marginal farmers, women-headed households, and physically challenged people for toilet construction.

On the other hand, the practice of open defecation still continues due to the mindset of people, resulting in exposure to a contaminated environment and a high rate of child mortality. Moreover, 34 percent of Indian states face high levels of water contamination especially in regions with high salinity and about 718 districts are facing extreme water exhaustion (WaSH Tatatrusts, 2020).

Hence, people have to struggle with scarce water resources and safe drinking water. It is estimated that rural areas are more prone to poor water and sanitation management as 82 percent of rural households in India have no access to safely managed drinking water (WHO and UNICEF, 2017).

The situation is worse in rural areas of Rajasthan state, which is characterized by limited surface water bodies, scanty rainfall, and frequent droughts. Here people rely on either distant or unimproved sources to meet their household needs and women/girls have to travel a minimum of 3-5 km each day to fetch water. Furthermore, women are facing more health risks compared to men from unsanitary conditions and sometimes become the victims of violence while defecating in the open (World Bank, 2011; Lee, 2017). Gender inequality is also another important issue in rural households of Rajasthan as women are not decision-makers regarding sanitation and water facilities (Doron, 2014).

This requires documentation and knowledge of WaSH practices at the local level for better understanding and for sustainable development. Therefore, in areas with scarcity of surface water resources, inadequate sanitation, and hygiene services, Geographical Information System (GIS) can be an efficient and powerful tool to visualize the existing situation of WaSH and identify the risk areas (Maina, 2015; De Moura and Procopiuck, 2020).

The detailed spatial patterns of drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene conditions at the local level could help to provide sustainable measures with the least cost. Several indexes were defined to evaluate the WaSH conditions (Cronk et al., 2015, Hashemi, 2020; Dickin et al., 2021) however, local policymakers require a simple and easy-to-use index for quick assessment.

In this paper, a global positioning system (GPS) based household survey was carried out in 67 villages of Phagi tehsil using individual questionnaires to evaluate the existing WaSH conditions spatially at the panchayat level. Three sub-indices were used for assessment and risk areas mapping with the integration of advanced computing methods. Support Vector Machine Regression (SVMR) was used to find the correlation and for predicting the WaSH conditions.

Findings

Results indicate the improvement in the availability of toilet facilities due to government efforts however toilet usage is least in the study area. Data shows that only six panchayats have almost zero open defecation practices among the 32 panchayats of Phagi tehsil.

The findings highlight that presence of toilets, water availability in toilets and high literacy rate could lead to an increase in toilet usage. Groundwater quality data analysis reflects the unsuitability of water for drinking purposes in the area. WaSH index scores infer that panchayats like Mandawari, Mendwas, Chandma Kalan, and Rotwara display the worst condition and fall in the high-risk category.

Moreover, SVMR results reveal that WaSH scores are mainly affected by open defecation (r = 0.94) and toilet water availability (r = 0.92). The findings demonstrate that the WaSH index can be used as a monitoring tool by local policymakers to shrink the WaSH gaps.

Conclusion

This study assessed and quantified the domestic WaSH conditions in the rural areas at the panchayat level using GPS-based household survey data and advanced computing techniques. Survey data reflects that some factors such as the presence of toilets, water availability in toilets, high literacy rate and female participation in sanitation decision-making could help to reduce the open defecation and improved hygiene practices in villages.

In order to understand and evaluate the practices with regard to existing water, sanitation, and defecation practices, a suitable index is developed for the spatial assessment of WaSH conditions.

WaSH risk areas were also identified for further improvement by decision-makers at the local level and to reduce the WaSH gaps. The integration of GIS and soft computing methods permitted a more in-depth examination of WaSH and behavioural determinants.

Hence three different models of SVMR viz. PLS, S-SVR and LS-SVR were used for the prediction of the WaSH index and to understand the variables associated with the WaSH index. SVMR results reveal that the WaSH index displays a good correlation with open defecation and toilet water availability.

The fact that people in rural areas lack potable water, and use unsafe sanitation and hygiene facilities hence it is necessary to change the mindset of people with a focus on community participation in decision making.

Survey data indicates that most of the respondents consider open field defecation a hygienic practice as they defecate in open and far from residential areas and this eliminates the need to maintain toilets and scarcity of water. This also requires structural improvements and planning at the grass-roots level as well as education and awareness programs on health and hygiene to improve the WaSH condition.

The full paper can be accessed here

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