From emerging towns, to some of the world’s fastest developing cities, managing human waste remains a big problem. The bulk of human waste in these cities is dumped untreated in local waterways, on marginal land or in open drains close to people’s houses – polluting the local environment and posing a huge health risk to communities. In Bangladesh, while 42% of the nation’s 30 million urban residents have ‘improved sanitation’ (latrines or septic tanks), the vast majority of waste still goes untreated. The country has only one treatment plant, in the capital, Dhaka, servicing just 18% of the city’s 9 million people.
Without a working sewerage system, for many, the only option in Bangladesh’s dense cities is waste removal by hand, a task left to the nation’s poorest and most marginalised. These “sweepers” play a vital role in managing human waste, but their jobs are poorly paid, unregulated and harmful to their health. The problem is immediate and impossible to ignore. However, a new SNV initiative in Bangladesh is working on new solutions to both cleaning up the nation’s cities and building sustainable livelihoods in the waste business.
With backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK DFID, the "Demonstration of Pro-poor Market-based Solutions for Faecal Sludge Management in Urban Centres of Southern Bangladesh" project is piloting new strategies for faecal sludge management in Khulna city, and two small towns. The 4-year project aims to improve the living environment of more than 1 million people. By developing faecal sludge management services, the project aims 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.
But it’s the innovative nature of the project that most excites project manager Rajeev Munankami. “We are not just focusing on providing access to sanitation – but ‘closing the loop’, from emptying of the pit, to safe transportation, and ultimately safe disposal of the sludge. Currently, Khulna’s sweepers can empty one pit a day, but with the right tools and increased awareness at demand side, they can empty three to five – that’s a huge increase in income.” The project will also look into re-use of the sludge, both in agriculture and biogas generation. It may be early days for the project, but with a commitment to sustainable change and an eye to innovation there is no business too dirty to be cleaned up.