Slum dwellers lack sanitation infrastructure and hygiene knowledge
Nine-year-old Ruman constantly suffers from diarrhea, fever and vomiting. Ruman has never been to school because his mother is too worried about his health.
“I am sick all the time,” says Ruman. “Even today I have had some diarrhea.”
Ruman lives with fourteen family members in a small house in the Hossainpur Uttar slum in Sirajganj, a small city in central Bangladesh. Perched along the ridges between several canals, the slum smells of feces and the garbage that litters the paths and waterways. Diarrheal disease is a big problem for the family.
“Someone or other is always sick,” says Ruman’s grandmother Hasina. “As soon as someone starts to get better, someone else falls ill.”
Latrine waste mixes with drinking water
All fourteen family members use the same latrine, which comprises two concrete footholds above an open drain. The concrete footholds have been built into the slab that surrounds the family’s water pump.
This arrangement means that the fount for the family’s drinking water is only two feet from the hole which drains their urine and faeces into the canal behind the house. According to Irin Sultana, Engineer of Sirajganj municipality, their water and sanitation arrangement means that the family is probably pumping contaminated water for household use. This construction is illustrative of widespread ignorance of proper sanitation.
Hasina says that she wishes the family had an improved latrine, yet she does not seem to understand the true impact that a hygienic latrine would have on the family’s health and finances. “My husbands earns so little that we can’t afford to put in a better latrine. If we were sick less often perhaps we could afford it. We spend a lot every month on oral saline and other medicine from the pharmacy.”
“There is a lack of motivation to put in latrines and change their sanitation habits because people are not aware of the intensity of the danger,” says Shah Alam, a Slum Development Officer in Sirajganj municipality. “They have never received the education which would motivate them to change.”
In response to this lack of crucial knowledge, which contributes to child morbidity and mortality, UNICEF, with funding from the UK Department for International Development (DFID), is launching the urban component of the Sanitation, Hygiene Education and Water Supply in Bangladesh (SHEWA-B) project.
Kitchen next to a Sewer
Walking around, one sees many more sanitation arrangements and practices that prove how crucial the SHEWA-B Urban project will be to the well-being of children and their families.
Feroz Ali Shekh, who also lives in Hossainpur Uttar slum with his young family, does not have a latrine of his own.
“I use my neighbour’s toilet. We also use his well,” says Feroz. “We face frequent health problems. I know that my two small children are getting sick because of the poor environment. The open latrines in the neighborhood might be a reason.”
Feroz’s house sits on the bank of a canal, next to the latrines of his neighbors. Many of these latrines are improperly constructed. Holes deliberately broken into the backs of the latrines spew raw sewage into the canal, instead of containing the waste to decompose in an anaerobic environment away from insects.
Feroz and his family also contribute to the unsanitary conditions behind the house. “We throw all our rubbish into the canal. We are purposefully filling it up with whatever we can find - rubbish, waste, anything - so that we can gain more land. The canal used to come up to the door, but we’ve extended the bank by two meters.”
Feroz has built the household kitchen on the reclaimed bank. All of the family’s meals are prepared on the edge of what is, essentially, an open sewer.
UNICEF is currently working with the Government of Bangladesh in nineteen districts to identify those urban areas most in need of sanitation improvements.
Following the model of the rural programme, SHEWA-B Urban will train community hygiene promoters (CHPs), usually young women from within the selected slum communities, to educate their neighbours about the health and financial benefits of sound hygiene practices and proper sanitation facilities. Besides conducting information sessions in schools, courtyards and markets, CHPs will maintain hygiene and sanitation maps that mark all the houses, water points and latrines of the local area. These maps are used by the community to plan for sanitation improvements.
The project will also provide funds for the construction of water points, waste treatment facilities and new latrines for the hard-core poor. The local community must decide whether communal latrines, public latrines or individual latrines are most suitable for their situation and must match all funds received.
The municipal government of Sirajganj has identified slums such as Hossainpur and Dhanbandi Purba Dakhin as priority areas where the project will be implemented when CHP activities begin later this year.