"One day I had an accident when I went to clean a septic tank. As soon as I removed the slab from the tank, methane gas released from the tank and lit up because of the gas lamp I was carrying, and consequently burnt my hand, back and chest."
This is just one of the experiences shared by the almost 100 manual septic tank and pit emptiers that were present during the FSM Network Convention in Dhaka. For most, it was the first time in their lives that they could voice their ideas and concerns to representatives from the government and the development sector. Some manual emptiers advocated for proper attire and certified training, whereas others focused more on equal employment opportunities and wages. Listening to their life stories it became clear that existing FSM services need to be further improved and developed, for the health and safety of the general public, and for that of the manual emptiers in particular.
The Honourable Kazi Reazul Hoque, Chairman of the Human Rights Commission in Bangladesh, commented that "the mindset of people needs to be changed because emptiers should have the same rights as others. These rights should be brought under a legal framework, set up by the government - who can then also provide subsidy for proper education, food and water." Social exclusion is a concern shared by dr. Morshed Syed from the Bangladesh Occupational Safety, Health and Environment Foundation, as he explained that emptiers are often denied entry to restaurants and their children are forced to clean toilets in primary school. What is more, due to mechanized emptying the work scope for manual emptiers is declining and there are limited opportunities for alternative employment.
"A regulatory framework is necessary to clearly assign roles and responsibilities among key stakeholders, to coordinate their efforts and facilitate attaining environmental, financial and social sustainability," according to dr. Md. Mujibur Rahman. "Having an effective FSM system in place not only improves the health of the population and the environment, but also offers government and private sector real market potential of over 2 billion USD a year (BCG, 2012). In addition, the cost of FSM technologies could be as much as 5 times less expensive than the more traditional sewer based solutions."
With backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK DFID, SNV is piloting new strategies for FSM in Khulna, Kushtia and Jhenaidah. The 4-year project aims to improve the living environment of more than 1 million people and to reform human waste management, building government capacity to develop and implement waste management services and policy, and increase the productivity and protect the health and dignity of people working in this vital sector.
For more information on FSM services in Bangladesh, please contact Rajeev Munankami, FSM Programme Leader for SNV in Bangladesh.