By Rupak Bhattacharjee*
Bangladesh, once described as “bottomless basket”, has achieved remarkable success in many aspects of social sector, including sanitation. The strong political will of the government and an inclusive approach have brought fundamental change in the area of sanitation of the South Asian nation. In 2015, open-defecation in the country reduced to just 1%. Besides, improved sanitation coverage stood at 61%, an increase of 28% since 2003.
A nationwide survey carried out in 2003 to assess the sanitation facilities in Bangladesh revealed an alarmingly poor condition. The survey found that only 33% of the households had access to hygienic latrines, while 42% people did not use any type of latrine, defecated in the open. The prevalence of abysmal poverty among rural people was identified as the most important reason for not having latrine. The review disclosed that almost 20% of the households had been very poor.
In order to improve the sanitation facilities throughout the country, the Bangladesh government undertook a series of measures activating its agencies from the national to the grassroots level after 2003. The primary responsibility of the sanitation sector is entrusted with the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives. The Sanitation Secretariat created within the Local Government Division is the nodal point overseeing the entire sanitation improvement programmes in the country. Its efforts are further supplemented by multilateral agencies, development partners and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). It is heartening to note that Bangladesh has succeeded in forging a unique partnership among government, donors, NGOs, private sector and media to develop sanitation in the country.
The government launched numerous policies, strategies and programmes, including National Strategy for Accelerated Poverty Reduction (2005 and 2008), Pro-Poor Strategy for Water and Sanitation (2005), National Strategy for Water and Sanitation in Hard to Reach Areas of Bangladesh (2012), National Hygiene Promotion Strategy for Water Supply and Sanitation Sector in Bangladesh (2012) and National Strategy for Water Supply and Sanitation (2014) to bring households across the country under the sanitation coverage. These efforts had been designed to reach the benefits of improved sanitation to all strata of the society encompassing women, children, differently able person, under-privileged, floating population and very poor people. Under the Seventh Five Year Plan (2016-20), Bangladesh seeks to raise the proportion of urban and rural population with access to sanitary latrines to 100% and 90%, respectively.
The political commitment of the government played a big role in making Bangladesh almost open-defecation free. It increased funds allocation for water supply and sanitation from $ 390 million in 2012-13 Fiscal Year (FY) to $ 526 million in FY 2014-15. The successive governments granted 15% of the national budget’s Annual Development Programme to local government institutions like Upazilas (sub-districts), corporations, municipalities and Union Parishads (each consisting of 10-15 villages) specifically for building proper sanitation facilities during 2003-2015. Reports suggest that Bangladesh’s endeavours also included a sophisticated sanitation marketing strategy, and a combination of social mobilisation techniques and commercial incentives to boost entrepreneurship and revenue generation. The World Bank and the NGOs have facilitated the engagement of private sector, leading to the resurgence of a robust rural industry of toiletries sales and service.
One more positive aspect of Bangladesh’s sanitation improvement schemes had been the empowerment of rural women. The Bangladesh-UNICEF Sanitation, Hygiene and Water Supply Programme imparted training to nearly 12,000 adolescent girls on Water Sanitation and Menstrual Hygiene Management, providing them with skills and motivation to work alongside the Community Health Promoters and volunteers within their localities. The knowledge acquired during their training prompted many to set up community shops or “SANIMARTS” where they sell various toilet items. Each “SANIMART” is managed by a group of 11 girls who earn $100-200 per month. This constitutes a key source of income for girls residing in some of the most backward regions of the country.
Moreover, the sanitation campaigns recognised gender sensitivity with women participating in decision making regarding the location and kind of latrines and representing in the community committees. Bangladesh also stressed on changing social behaviour along with up gradation of technology and infrastructure in respect to open-defecation. A nationwide sanitation drive was launched in 2003 to disseminate information on the threats of spreading feces, costs of treatment for the resulting diseases, benefits of latrines for families and how community wide use was necessary to prevent spread of diseases.
The radical transformation of the people’s mindset from open-defecation to defecation in fixed latrines is indeed a success story for the Bengali nation. Interestingly, having a household toilet has become a status symbol signifying dignity especially in the rural folk. These days, the condition of the household latrine has become the determining factor in marriage arrangements. Bangladesh’s impressive performance in the sanitation coverage that has earned the appreciation of the international community could be a role model for neighbouring India where 600-630 million, i.e. nearly 50% of the population defecate in the open.
The Bangladesh government also used Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) approach that was conceived by development consultant Kamal Kar in that country in 2000. CLTS’ techniques, which are currently operational in more than 60 developing countries, mobilise communities to improve sanitation facilities through highlighting factors like shame, disgust and health hazards associated with open-defecation and reject sanitation subsidies. Several NGOs, including Water Aid Bangladesh, World Vision, Practical Action, BRAC, NGO-FORUM, Asa and Max Foundation actively supported the government efforts to make the country virtually open-defecation free.
The Bangladesh government’s various agencies and local civic bodies sustained the campaigns to shift people from open-defecation to fixed point defecation through building low-cost latrines which are shared among two/three families. The government has attributed the recent achievement in the arena of sanitation to a number of factors, namely: strong role of local government institutions, government-NGO coordination at national, district and sub-district levels, long-term support from donors/development partners, media campaigns, creative marketing strategies and easy access to latrine materials and skill masons in a local market.
The expansion of sanitation coverage contributed significantly to the improvement of Bangladesh’s health sector. The Diarrheal diseases caused due to contamination of food and drinking water that are common in Bangladesh, witnessed a downward trend following the implementation of the sanitation programmes throughout the country. Reports say waterborne diseases decreased by 7% during 2006-10 thanks to the progress in the sanitation coverage.
However, despite all such efforts, some challenges do persist in the field of sanitation. Studies show that 28% households are still sharing latrines and 10% people are using unimproved latrines. The sanitation coverage is yet to reach some difficult regions, for example, hilly areas of Chittagong Hill Tracts, islands, swamp, tea gardens and water-scarce belts. Furthermore, there are impediments in providing sanitation to the areas vulnerable to climate change and floating people. Natural disasters such as flood and cyclones also cause damage to sanitation facilities.
Offering sanitation facilities to the rapidly growing urban population remains another area of concern. Bangladesh’s urban population has been increasing at 3.52%, the highest in South Asia. The country’s sanitation schemes mainly focus on household latrine construction in the rural areas, rather than on public toilets. The government could do more for building public toilets as millions of people who migrated to the cities from the countryside for employment, reside in thousands of over-crowded slums without having proper sanitation infrastructure.
*Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent policy analyst writing on issues related to India’s Northeast and Bangladesh. He can be reached at: [email protected]