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Two-hundred and sixty billion US dollars! That’s the figure the World Health Organization estimates the lack of access to sanitation costs the world annually. In South Asia, 44% of the population lack access to proper sanitation. So, what do people do to take care of their bodily needs?

They have no choice other than to practise open defecation in fields, bushes, water bodies, or other open spaces. In India alone, an estimated 638 million people, 50% of the country's population, practice open defecation! Human excreta carries high concentrations of pathogens. Without proper facilities to wash hands with soap and water, these disease carrying pathogens remain on people's hands and clothes. And as people shake other hands, touch surfaces, food, water, etc.…these disease agents spread like wildfire. They are the leading cause of public health issues such as diarrheal diseases and malnutrition.  

Despite this grim picture, there are dedicated, innovative people in cities across India working on the "Journey to Zero" – 0% open defecation. As Country Director for SNV Bangladesh, I had the opportunity during October 16-21, 2016 to travel to the cities of Warangal and Bengaluru in India, along with two SNV colleagues working on our "Demonstration of pro-poor market-based solutions for faecal sludge management (FSM) in urban centres of Southern Bangladesh" programme and officials from the cities of Khulna, Kushtia and Jhenaidah in Southern Bangladesh, cities that are seeking best practices and lessons learned to improve their FSM, sanitation and hygiene.

As someone new to FSM and seeking greater exposure to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programming, the trip to India proved to be eye-opening. Both cities are living laboratories in their innovative solutions to address their FSM and urban sanitation and hygiene challenges. Key takeaways that hit home for me and made me think "hey, these are low cost, high impact initiatives we can try in Southern Bangladesh to improve the living environment and contribute to the health and well-being of the urban population" include the following:

  • Toilet Finder App – an open source app to locate public bathrooms in Warangal.
  • Sanitation help line (S-Line): a single point of contact with the Warangal Municipal Development Corporation to make requests for a new toilet, desludging, access to government subsidies for toilet construction (12,000 Indian Rupees (INR) subsidy (approximately USD 200) to construct a new toilet and 7,000 INR (USD 116) to rehabilitate an insanitary toilet to a sanitary toilet), and to file complaints.
  • Formation of Resident Welfare Associations to strengthen hygiene and sanitation improvements.
  • Crowdsourcing campaign resulting in 15,000 bars of soap being donated by residents to be distributed to schools.
  • WASH campaigning at schools with students designated as "Prime Minister" and "Minister of Hygiene" – an effective way to get school-aged children engaged at an early age in sanitation and hygiene, promote gender awareness and equity, incorporate student accountability, and instill pride in students. The youth serve as triggers for sanitation and hygiene in their homes and communities.

Students designated as Minister of Hygiene (left) and Prime Minister (right)

  • Public-private partnerships leading to the construction, operation and maintenance of public toilets – at a profit to private businesses, a social and health benefit to residents, and an outsourced service for cities. A win-win-win for all involved!
  • Feedback mechanisms – "Rate your public toilet experience" that feeds into an automated system to track and monitor toilet operation and maintenance and customer satisfaction.
  • Public-private collaboration for the construction of separate toilets for boys and girls + handwashing facilities at schools.
  • Beautification of Faecal Sludge Treatment Plants (FSTP). As a side note, at the FSTP in Bengaluru, we were told that residents and visitors have stopped by and entered the FSTP asking if it is a park.

In sum, the urban sanitation innovations taking place in Warangal and Bengaluru are ones my colleagues and I will seek to implement in Southern Bangladesh. Our biggest challenge continues to be getting private businesses to recognize there is profit to be made in being in the sanitation business. We will start with one or two pilots as we seek to create the public-private partnerships to improve the urban sanitation and overall quality of life of residents. The lessons learned and best practices from Warangal and Bengaluru will guide us on our Journey to Zero.

Written by Jason Belanger, Country Director SNV Bangladesh and based on best practices learned from his FSM Exposure Visit to India.

"Demonstration of pro-poor market-based solutions for faecal sludge management (FSM) in urban centres of Southern Bangladesh" is a four year initiative funded by the generous support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development. Project partners include: Khulna Water and Sewerage Authority (KWASA), Khulna University of Engineering and Technology (KUET), Urban and Rural Planning (URP) Discipline of Khulna University (KU) and WaterAid Bangladesh (WAB).