Better toilets for Bangladesh

Better toilets for Bangladesh

A crude ‘public toilet’ sits about 30 meters back from the Rupsa Ghat boat dock in Khulna. It’s a tiny corrugated-iron shack with three sides, no roof, and two round concrete slabs with holes to stand on.

A piece of shredded plastic can be pulled across the opening for privacy. The sewage from the drop toilet feeds through a pipe directly into a shallow canal that leads to the river. 

Story and pictures by LuAnne Cadd

Rajeev Munankami, Programme leader for SNV Netherland’s Faecal Sludge Management project, points out other pipes along the canal. They are all dumping sewage.

Khulna, the third largest city in Bangladesh, has a population of 1.5 million people, similar to Barcelona or Munich, yet has no public sewage system, the norm in Bangladesh from large cities to small villages.

Although there’s only 1% open defecation in Bangladesh, on-site sanitation systems – septic tank and pit latrines – are the most common.

'Faecal sludge leeches out into the ground. It gets into the water bodies of ponds, rivers, and lakes,' Jason Belanger describes, SNV Netherland’s Country Director.

'There’s reuse of that water, whether it be for household purposes or for bathing. People simply lack the knowledge about pathogens and all the health issue associated with the faecal sludge.'

Bangladesh’s poorest slum dwellers known as ‘sweepers’ or ‘emptiers’ take on the task of manually removing the faecal sludge when the tanks become full, often dumping it into any nearby drainage they can find. They are underpaid, unregulated, and suffer health issues and often fatal accidents from the methane gas.

'Although Faecal Sludge Management might not pull the same heartstrings as maternal and child health care, the environmental and health impact on the population is entirely connected.'

The Project

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, SNV Netherland is currently in the third year of a four-year Faecal Sludge Management pilot project for the city of Khulna and two nearby smaller towns - Kushtia and Jhenaidah.

The project aims to develop faecal sludge management services, which includes building government capacity to develop and implement waste management policy, services, and treatment, plus increase the productivity and protect the health and dignity of those who manually remove the faecal sludge from tanks.

'We are working at all levels,' Jason explains. 'We’re working, for example, with the emptiers that go in manually and extract the sludge, to provide them with personal protective equipment, educating them on the dangers they face if they go into these tanks unprotected.

There were 31 deaths in 2016 of these workers from the methane gas because they might be lighting a cigarette near the tanks. But then it goes all the way up through working with universities to do research.

We have a number of graduate students at a couple of different universities in the Khulna area that are carrying out research directly related to faecal sludge, whether it be toilets on trains to composting, to a variety of studies related to raising awareness about faecal sludge and the potentials for the industry on a business level.'

The Emptiers

'One day I had an accident when I went to clean a septic tank. As soon as I removed the slab from the tank, methane gas released from the tank and lit up because of the gas lamp I was carrying, and consequently burnt my hand, back and chest,' one emptier describes.

In a Khulna slum, a group of Hindu men sit in a small room to talk about their job. They are 4th generation manual sludge emptiers, dating back as far as 1916, they say.

They start in the early morning hours emptying office and house tanks, often looking for more work during the day then continuing with the work in the evening hours. Some say they work through the night when people can’t see and smell the messy job they do.

One man uses a vehicle and mechanically pumps the sludge from the latrine to a small tank on a truck, but most use a few buckets, a shovel, rope and hoses. They don’t use protective gear like gloves, rubber boots or a helmet.

The men can’t say exactly what the deeper health issues are as a result of their job, but instead talk about the injuries from broken glass or fish bones when they are inside a tank.

SNV is working toward providing safer and more profitable working conditions for these men, including health and safety training and access to protective gear such as masks, helmets, coveralls and rubber boots, but behavioral change is crucial in a job that has changed little in 100 years.

The Treatment Plant

SNV has also purchased large faecal sludge tankers called ‘vacutugs’ – a truck with a bright yellow 7500 liter tank on the back – that will be placed as mobile transfer stations and then transported the 8-9 km to the city’s first faecal sludge treatment plant, built by Khulna City Corporation.

The new treatment plant officially opened in March 2017, built on a landfill the government gave for this purpose. It was constructed at a relatively low cost, $180,000, and requires only a few people to operate.

The facility which needs only a few people to operate, uses ‘Constructed Wetland’ technology, also called ‘planted drying beds’. It can handle 180 cubic meters per day of faecal sludge, about the equivalent of 10 oil tankers, which is 15% of the collected city waste.

'SNV started with trying to change the behavior of the people, government issues, and the service providers, but then we realized that until the treatment plant is here, people are not seeing how this can work. So we invested in this one. Now we can say to the city authorities that we have a treatment plant, start enforcing the new plans,' says, Rajeev who flew with MAF directly to Khulna for meetings with the city authorities to discuss how to move forward now that the treatment plant was operational.

Khulna, located in the south of the country has no airport which means the fastest way to the city is by MAF’s float plane versus flying to a city north and driving several hours to Khulna which Rajeev explains means the loss of a day of work. SNV moved staff back and forth between Dhaka and Khulna 65 times last year and hopes to use MAF more in the coming year.

Although Faecal Sludge Management might not pull the same heartstrings as maternal and child health care, the environmental and health impact on the population is entirely connected. SNV’s project will benefit all with better health through improved hygiene practices and cleaner water sources.

'Khulna, located in the south of the country has no airport which means the fastest way to the city is by MAF’s float plane.SNV moved staff back and forth between Dhaka and Khulna 65 times last year and hopes to use MAF more in the coming year.'