Why faecal sludge flows unnoticed

Why faecal sludge flows unnoticed

When municipal waste is not collected, an almost immediate ‘uprising’ ensues. This is hardly the case for faecal sludge, which lurks untreated in the background. Tackling the unseen threat of faecal sludge to urban residents requires making the ‘unseen seen’, co-developing interventions that focus on city authorities as duty bearers, and maximising the potential of existing sanitation facilities and regulations.

To see, or not to see, that is the question

What happens when municipal waste is not collected for two days? A once pleasant walk becomes unbearable owing to the stench of accumulated waste. There is fear of falling ill due to unhygienic conditions. Waterways and storm water drains clog up, increasing the risk of filthy floods. Roads become impassable. Any delayed action to respond to an inconvenience so visible is likely to escalate in discontent and unrest.

Municipal waste strewn in a street in Khulna

Municipal waste strewn in a street in Khulna

This is not the case for faecal sludge. Although faecal sludge (FS) contains more pathogens than municipal waste, it generates less outcry. Faecal sludge creeps in silence through open or covered drains. In most cases, it ends up untreated in the local environment, posing an unseen yet vicious threat to people’s health and well-being.

Where do people think their poop goes? Watch this insightful video.

Improvements in policy enforcement needed

In Bangladesh, national building codes, design standards and work processes exist for the construction of new sanitary systems. Still overall FS management and facilities fall in disrepair and chaos. Problem is weak enforcement of rules by relevant institutions. These institutions are plagued by insufficient resources – both in work force and funding and a lack of awareness of this unseen problem. These have resulted in the neglect of on-site systems management and a heavy reliance on untrained masons.

Skills development and training for masons wanting

In the absence of a sewage system, households in Khulna – like most urban centres in Bangladesh – mainly rely on on-site facilities such as pits and septic tanks. On-site facilities are mainly built by masons with limited technical knowledge to do the job. This, in part, has led to highly unsustainable and even toxic practices, such as connecting the septic tank outlet to the nearest drain or water body. This way, a household’s tank will never require emptying, and the sludge becomes someone else’s problem. In Khulna alone, 90% of all households with septic tanks discharge wastewater directly to the nearest drain, leaving the sludge to silently pollute the environment and affect the health of its inhabitants.

Further, in many societies, talking about poo is a social taboo. When drains become clogged and septic tanks overflow, the services of a pit emptier are called. The tank is emptied bucket by bucket. Emptying is a job that no one wants to do, but these emptiers have no alternative.

Moving forward

In populated urban centres such as Khulna, the installation of piped sewage systems throughout the city is not an option due to geographical, economical, and financial issues. It would be far too costly to cover these unplanned and already densely built areas. Policy and decision makers have therefore been searching for cost-effective and sustainable (alternative) designs to replace or upgrade existing on-site FSM options for households.

Through the Gates-funded City Wise Inclusive Sanitation Engagement (CWISE) project [1], SNV is taking up the challenge of urban sanitation. Market-based solutions (that generate income to enable expansion of sanitations services) along with smart enforcement by duty bearers (awareness creation, taxing, and detailed on site sanitation information systems) are of key importance. After four years of project implementation, we have:

The coming years will show an intensified focus in bringing demand to scale and strengthening women’s and low-income communities’ access to existing services. Once citizens are aware of their access to safe emptying services, unnoticed faecal sludge flows will be history.

1 SNV’s C-WISE project is formerly known as Pro-poor market-based solutions for faecal sludge management programme. C-WISE activities align with the Gates Foundation’s urban sanitation approach in model cities around the world.
2 Visit the components reports of the project to access a fuller description of the its results and achievements.

About the Author: Rajeev leads SNV Bangladesh’s Urban Sanitation Programme and has been with SNV since 2009. He has over 15 years of professional experience in managing action oriented and evidence-based development programmes and has led multi-stakeholder sector development approaches for both government agencies and I/NGOs.

Photos: Images from Khulna by Aidan Dockery for SNV