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Bangladesh's sanitation challenges as it sets 'positive example' for India on open defecation

By Proshakha Maitra, Mansee Bal Bhargava* 

Globally, 2 billion people (26% of the population) do not have safe drinking water and 3.6 billion (46%) lack access to safely managed sanitation (UNESCO report on behalf of UN-Water at the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York). Basic sanitation, proper hygiene, and access to safe water are key to maintain good health and to promote social and economic growth in a society (Mara et.al., 2010).
More than 3.6 billion people are living with poor quality toilets that affect their health besides polluting their surrounding environment leading to other negative impacts. With lack of adequate hygiene measures, around 800 children lose their lives every day to diarrhea and other water epidemics.
Inadequate sanitation practices transcend individual consequences to become drivers of water pollution – both at the surface and groundwater. The poorly managed human excreta and wastes flow into the rivers, lakes, and soils, negatively altering their quality.
It cannot be directly seen, but it is now proven that groundwater affects practically all spheres of human lives. Groundwater accounts for around 30% of the freshwater resources in the world, including rivers, lakes, streams, and snow in polar regions. It has become an increasingly significant supply of fresh water for various uses around the world due to rapid rise in population and urbanization (McGill, et al., 2019).
However, inadequate sanitation practices are gradually leading to the chemical and microbial contamination of the vital resource to a point of no return. This connection between groundwater and sanitation is invisible physically under the ground and socially ignored mostly as the most impacted are the marginalized communities in the cities/towns/villages.
The Wednesdays.for.Water conversations session organized on, ‘Sanitation and Groundwater – the Invisible Connection’ discussed this wicked complex problem of the invisible groundwater and sanitation their relationship. The session speakers Sarmistha Debnath and Shishir Kumar Biswas highlight in the context of Bangladesh how the country is challenged by sanitation and groundwater and how it is coping with them, where the role of the Department of Public Health Engineering has been instrumental.
Sarmistha is holding a position of the executive engineer of the Survey Investigation and Research Division and Shishir is holding a position of executive engineer, Urban Water Supply and Sanitation under the Department of Public Health Engineering, both as part of the Government of Bangladesh. Bharat Ramachandran from the Teri School of Advanced Studies is the discussant and the session moderation by Dr. Fawzia Tarannum representing Climate Reality India and WforW Foundation

Sanitation conditions in Bangladesh

According to the World Bank, Bangladesh has made great strides in eliminating open defecation, dropping it from 34% of the population in 1990 to 1% in 2015. Bangladesh is declared free from open defecation in the year 2016. It is among one of the first Asian countries to be free from open defecation, setting a positive example for other nations especially India.
Negligible open defecation can still be seen in certain slum areas (around 3%) towards which the government in closely working. Apart from building toilets, the government has also taken efficient measures to raise awareness and ensure that the people are using the toilets. The country’s focus is towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals 6.1 and 6.2 by 2030 and is making significant progress towards this.
The early sanitation survey was started in the country in the year 2003. However, much useful data was unavailable back then. Few years later, the Bill & Mellinda Gates Foundation collaborated with the Government of Bangladesh to inspect the real sanitation situation in the country.
Intensive surveys were conducted which continued even during the Covid period creating a robust and holistic dashboard. This dashboard has become a crucial instrument in analyzing the current sanitation situations and trends, having the existing situation data of 53 District Towns and 8 City Corporations. After the survey and preparation, it is handed over to the Survey Investigation and Research Division of the country for further monitoring.

Sanitation and gender

Poor sanitation has a disproportionately negative impact on vulnerable people, particularly women. Women, all over the world face challenges in several sectors, including water and sanitation and is more prominent in developing countries like, Bangladesh, India, etc. Globally, there is a health and social divide between men and women as a result of attitudes and ideas about gender, particularly for menstruation (Vogel, et.el., 2022) Bangladesh has made significant progress in this aspect with the government proactively working towards menstrual hygiene management.
Several strategies have been adopted and inclusive toilets have been created in over 34,000 primary schools across the country where menstrual hygiene facilities are provided by the School Committees. It is no longer a social taboo, and both the male and female students are guided on how menstrual hygiene practices should be followed.

Sanitation service chain

The sewage collection and treatment system has been made very effective and inclusive in the country. The fecal sludge from the toilets is properly collected in storage tanks created below the ground surface from where they are collected by vacuum trucks at regular intervals. After the collection, they are thoroughly treated and made free of all contaminants before their disposal or reuse.
This practice ensures that there is no contamination of any water body or open spaces. All the indicator and sub-indicators of the city-wise Inclusive Sanitation Service Framework is reflected in the Sanitation Dashboard. Even minor details such as the accessibility of the storage pits by the vacuum trucks for the collection of wastes are available on the Sanitation Dashboard. Based on this, the department is working towards preparing regular sanitation reports for publication. Several universities as well as the local municipal governments are using these reports as a crucial instrument to study and work on the sanitation situation in the country.

Groundwater contamination through improper sanitation services

As the population is on the rise, most of the regions around the world are facing a major challenge with regard to the disposal of the increasing amount of waste. Open dumping sites and landfills are often regarded as the most convenient and cost-effective way to dispose waste materials.
Unplanned actions at landfill sites pose a serious threat to groundwater, despite the fact that they appear to be a rescue for metropolitan regions dealing with waste difficulties (Muhammad & Zhonghua, 2014). In areas of pits and tank leachates, the concentration of nitrates in the groundwater increases and cross the permissible limits in areas where the waterbed is shallow. This makes the water completely unsafe for human consumption.
Bangladesh too faces the challenge of groundwater contamination. Leakage from cracked or damaged septic tanks lead to bacterial contamination of the underground water. Household chemicals also find their way to groundwater through latrines. It is often seen that the treatment plants are challenged to fully treat the waste materials as they receive flows with concentration of pollutants that exceed the design capacities and thereby resulting in lower treatment of the materials.

Drinking water source and pollution

In earlier times, adequate quantities of drinking water were easily available all throughout Bangladesh through dug wells, reserved ponds, rivers, and canals. Till the nineties, the groundwater was also safe and free from Arsenic which is a naturally occurring toxic metal. However, in the recent years, especially in the urban areas, the water availability is challenged both in terms of quantity and quality. Water quantity is inadequately available throughout the year and the available water is of deteriorated quality because of pollution.
With the change in global climatic conditions and the rise in sea levels, salinity in both surface and ground water sources have increased in the coastal areas. The water from hand tube wells in coastal areas are no longer suitable for direct human consumption. This is very prominent in the dry season, particularly in the southern portion of the country up to the Faridpur region.

The crucial role of Department of Public Health Engineering

With the exception of Dhaka, Narayanganj, and Chittagong cities, where the Water Supply and Sewerage Authority operate, the Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE) is the country's national lead agency for the provision of drinking water supplies, sanitation facilities, and waste management. It is largely involved with the municipality based developmental projects for the provision of piped water supply, developing effective drainage networks and improving the overall sanitation conditions.
DPHE is also involved in the rural areas of the country to promote and develop sanitation and hygiene programs at a comparatively lower cost. Apart from developmental activities, the department is proactively dedicated to strengthen the human resources and also aid the Local Government Institutions in waste management activities. The projects and activities are carried out by them in accordance with national policies, goals, and sector development plans while adhering to all the applicable laws, rules, and standards.
Since any implementation measure can fail to be effective if it is not monitored regularly. DPHE is thus, also a monitoring body for activities on water, sanitation and waste management. The department created data on the country's safe groundwater aquifer strata and changes in water quality. Some activities undertaken by the organisation to ensure effective monitoring includes union wise water technology mapping, geo code-based water point identification system and tube well water quality screening.
These provide a holistic picture regarding how the sanitation measures and programs are faring and the exact areas or aspects where intervention is required. The district-wise Water Point Mapping also makes it suitable to understand which technology is feasible in a particular area.
A robust data-base has also been prepared for easy access of information by all the involved parties of action. Through the unique geo-code id of a water point, the data on its technology used for water extraction, water quality as assessed from the zonal laboratory, list of all the tube-wells or rural pipelined schemes have been made available to the public.
The journey of DPHE started in 2012 with the establishment of the first faecal sludge treatment plant. There onwards, the department has been extensively involved in developing Institutional Regulatory Framework for Faecal Sludge Management (FSM) and providing sensitisation programs for the municipalities and other local government institutions. FSM activities are implemented in more than 100 municipalities with collaboration between the Government of Bangladesh and other developmental partners. For upcoming demand-responsive investment projects, a thorough feasibility study project was conducted for 8 City Corporations and 53 Municipalities.
Inclusive toilets for girls have been created in over 34,000 primary schools across the country
DPHE has come up with innovative toilet technologies and these are piloted in several areas. Production of biofuel is one such initiative which is considered successful in Cox’s Bazar. To plan, develop, and supervise the activities of capacity building, awareness raising, service standardisation, and implementation of IRF through various projects, DPHE formed the CWIS-FSM cell.
Through the DPHE’s Human Resources Centre and the International Training Network Centre of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (ITN-BUET), human resources are developed through a variety of courses, technology transfer, and knowledge sharing. The Institutional Regulatory Framework for FSM in rural areas is now being implemented. After the completion of the Dashboard, the department is now focussed on the Integrated Municipality based Management System (IMIS). The IMIS is piloted in the Jhenaidah Municipality and is under monitoring towards the standardisation of the services.

Way forward

Although Bangladesh is advancing fast in tackling of its sanitation and groundwater challenges, the impact of climate change induced water crisis is a big concern. At individual and household level sanitation, major developments in the country are seen in the recent time, however the country faces challenges in large scale integration of sanitation. Some challenges are here to stay, some may be resolved, some new may emerge but important is that there is a serious effort in progress to deal with proper sanitation and groundwater challenges.
For example, if the pollution of groundwater through the septic tanks can be estimated and the people can take some measures against it. Most of the septic tanks are connected with the drains so, even in the absence of rainfall, when there is no overflow, the groundwater gets polluted.
The Government of Bangladesh through several Municipal Acts (in 2009) has conducted extensive programs that restricted the connection of septic tanks to the drains in addition, to the several awareness campaigns regarding proper sanitation measures. For example, the UNICEF mascot Meena has made it possible to reach the young masses and inculcate the habit of proper hygiene practices among them. The primary focus is on the containment system because if they are not properly covered then the overall sanitation management will remain a distant dream to be achieved.
Large scale sanitation is often looked at as a problem of surface water and sewage treatment plant and thus government is directly held responsible. The government also need to device policies towards community level engagement specially to make people understand that the invisible groundwater is also a crucial resource that is getting polluted and is having a serious impact to society. In place like Bangladesh where groundwater is closely related to sanitation, it is all the more crucial that people are aware of its importance and consequences.
The role of DHPE has been crucial in bringing out the written policies to the implementors while closely working with the local government institutions. The faulty containment systems are being identified and the department is giving specific orders from the local government divisions to those municipalities to upgrade their containment systems so that every drop of wastewater can be prevented from exposure to the environment. Such practices have been started in the country in full swing through the municipalities.
In order to monitor the leakage, the DPHE is collecting water samples from random locations and taking them to the laboratories for pollution assessment. It is also trying to assess how many water points can be polluted from a particular septic tank or containment zone to help them measure the effectiveness of the containment system.
Every single development plan needs budget and investment. The government alone cannot provide absolute services to the people unless the citizens are proactively involved. Women and youth become crucial to bring any major change in the society. Most of them are aware of the schemes in place, their rights and their duties towards the environment.
Now it will be important to see if they will be (able to) using the real time data to bring necessary changes in the behaviours and other aspects. The numerous campaigns and sensitisation programs to get people familiar with the situation and consequences through the real time available data may slowly sink in and bring the desired change in the country.
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Wednesdays.for.Water is an initiative of the WforW Foundation, a think tank, built as a Citizens Collective. The idea of Wednesdays.for.Water is to connect the water worries and wisdom with the water warriors through dialogues/discussions/debates. The objective is to get in conversations with policy makers, practitioners, researchers, academicians besides the youth towards water conservation and management. The other team members of WforW are, Dr. Fawzia Tarannum (Climate Reality India), Prof. Bibhu P Nayak (TISS-Hyd), Ganesh Shankar and Vasantha Subbiah (FluxGen-Blr), Megha Gupta, Garbhit Naik, Monica Tewari, Harshita Sehgal, Monami Bhattacharya, Anubhuti Shekhar (ED(R)C-Ahmd), Vandana Tiwari, Kalpana Patel, and counting. The Wednesdays.for.Water is reachable at wednesdays.for.water@gmail.com and WforW Foundation is reachable at hellowforw@gmail.com and hello@wforw.in. The WforW Foundation social media are reachable at Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.
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*Proshakha Maitra is independent scholar and Fellow at ED(R)C Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation. Mansee Bal Bhargava is entrepreneur, researcher, educator, speaker, mentor. Environmental Design Consultants, Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation (www.mansee.in and www.wforw.in)

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