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Improving sanitation and hygiene in a slum area of Dhaka, Bangladesh

Marking World Water Day 2011

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2011/Mawa
Dolly Ahkter, 22, gives a presentation about safe hygiene practices at a water point in the Rupnagar slum area of the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka.

By Jeannette Francis

DHAKA, Bangladesh, 21 March 2011 – Before a small crowd, Dolly Ahkter, 22, unravels a large piece of brown paper covered in check marks and crosses, and begins to explain what the markings mean.

Ms. Ahkter is one of 15 young volunteer hygiene monitors living in the Rupnagar slum located in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The group checks to see that their families and neighbours are keeping up with safe hygiene practices. Their findings are recorded on large bits of brown paper that are marked to indicate whether residents are complying with proper hygiene practices.

“We go door-to-door and try to promote hygienic behaviour,” says Ms. Ahkter, who first got involved in this field during the UNICEF-supported Mirpur-Rupnagar Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Upgrading Project. That12-month-initiative, which concluded in mid-2010, sought to promote hygiene awareness and rebuild vital water and sanitation infrastructure in the slum area.

‘Water for Cities’

Over the past two decades, water-supply and sanitation improvements in urban areas like Rupnagar have failed to keep up with population growth in the developing world. Many people who live in cities do not have access to improved sanitation facilities, and the urban poor pay far more for a litre of water than their wealthier neighbours, since they often have to buy it from private vendors.

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2011/Mawa
Young women from the Rupnagar slum district in Dhaka, Bangladesh inspect a water storage tank. UNICEF helped the community negotiate for legal water connection.

In light of such challenges, the theme of this year’s World Water Day, observed on 22 March, is ‘Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Challenge.’

UNICEF’s work in the water, sanitation and hygiene – or WASH – sector has traditionally focused on rural areas, where households live without safe water and sanitation. But given increasing urbanization and growing inequities between the urban rich and poor, UNICEF has repositioned itself to play a key role in supporting WASH services in urban areas.

Sanitation against the odds

Recent data collected by UNICEF Bangladesh show that urban slum dwellers have very limited access to safe water, sanitation and waste management. The 2009 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, for example, showed that only 8.5 per cent of households in slum areas were using improved sanitation facilities that met UNICEF monitoring standards. 

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2011/Mawa
Dolly Ahkter (right) manages a UNICEF-supported shop selling hygiene products in the Rupnagar slum district of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

To address these difficulties, the upgrading project in Rupnagar provided 11 demountable structures, each of which contained a hygienic latrine and two bathing areas serving 40 households. The buildings were constructed beside seven legal water points, which UNICEF and its partners secured after negotiations with the government-run Water Supply and Sewerage Authority, or WASA.

“We struggled to get the legal connection,” says Monirul Alam, who works with UNICEF Bangladesh’s WASH section and was involved with the negotiations.

Legal and safe water connection

Prior to the upgrading project, the slum’s residents relied on a series of illegal pipes and makeshift contaminated wells for water. Mr. Alam notes that a legal and sustainable water connection meant cutting out the middle men who were supplying the slum’s residents with illegal water pipes. WASA agreed to set up a legal water connection only after UNICEF and partners helped create a community-based organization to ensure that residents would pay their bills on time.

Previously, households in Rupnagar were being charged up to 400 taka (about $5.50) per month to use water that was often unsafe. Now, each household pays around 80 taka ($1) per month, and no one has yet defaulted on a payment.

As she pushes down on the water pump near her home, Rupnagar resident Anwar Begum, 40, says the legal water connection has saved her family and others time and money.

“Before we had a water point installed, many of the women who worked in the garment factories were forced to get up at 6 a.m. and walk half an hour to a nearby house just to ask for drinking water,” she recalls. “The water was often unreliable and contaminated, and because the women had to go straight to work, they didn’t have time to boil it – so their children got sick.”



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