Thoughts from the field: Sanitation – the Urban ‘Time Bomb’


‘Sanitation is more important than independence.’ – Mahatma Gandhi

Last week I did something I've been wanting to do for a while. I blocked out my calendar for five full days and flew to Khulna, Bangladesh’s third largest city situated along the southern coastal belt. My goal – to make that long overdue visit to SNV’s urban sanitation programme, which intent is to deliver effective, low-cost faecal sludge management (FSM). I took advantage of the opportunity to visit Ward 10, one of Khulna’s slum areas.

The urban sanitation challenge that Ward 10 represents

Ward 10 is a microcosm of the urban sanitation challenges faced by urban areas throughout Bangladesh, and around the developing world. A 2011 census figure cites the population in Ward 10 at 30,000 [1]; however, a 2014 SNV baseline assessment puts the actual number of residents at 100,000.

The northern part of Ward 10 is primarily a low-income neighbourhood. Most of its residents live in poorly-built structures designed for single occupancy, which are used to house multiple families. More than 50% of the households in Ward 10 have no access to a toilet, nor on-site sanitation facilities. Roughly 33% of households have septic tanks, and less than 14% have pit latrines [2]. The majority of these are connected to surface drains. It is estimated that “…76% of the generated sewage and 60% of solid wastes in Khulna slum areas are discharged directly to the drain which significantly increases exposure to faecal contamination, particularly during the monsoon season ” [3]. Many of these drains are clogged with solid waste. During the heavy rains, it is not uncommon for septic tanks - not emptied on a regular basis - to overflow into the narrow streets where children play and people congregate. 

Closing the sanitation gap

To address such critical gaps in sanitation, SNV partnered with Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) to demonstrate market-based solutions to FSM for low-income urban communities [4].

In just one year, SNV and WSUP’s FSM enhancements have improved the sanitation conditions in Ward 10. Faecal sludge is now contained in three neighbourhoods serving more than 100 households. As I strolled leisurely around Ward 10, local counselors - themselves residents - proudly showed me examples of sanitation improvements, such as the construction of enclosed septic tanks. These counselors and community members have created sanitation committees responsible for the monthly operations and maintenance of the sanitation improvements. Each committee member pays a monthly fee, which gets deposited into a local interest-bearing bank account to help cover the costs of operations and maintenance. Such committees are vital to the long-term sustainability of the project once SNV and WSUP have left to pursue opportunities to make similar sanitation improvements in other urban areas.

Before: March 2017 - Clogged drain and stagnant water

After: March 2018 - Low-cost septic tanks installed

An urban sanitation model

The scope to build on our urban sanitation model and use this as a blueprint for other slum areas to improve their urban sanitation in Bangladesh (and beyond) is massive. It is now estimated that the majority of the world’s 7 billion people live in urban areas. This number is only projected to grow as more and more people seek out better opportunities in cities. Simply put, we are facing an urban biological time bomb that we absolutely must address. The sooner the better. The consequences of not doing so will be dire.

[1] Population & housing census 2011 Zila report: Khulna Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics Ministry of Planning Statistics and Informatics Division, access here
[2] A Baseline Study to Assess Faecal Sludge Management of Residential Premises in Selected Southern Cities of Bangladesh, November 2014
[3] Problems of existing sanitation system in Khulna city of Bangladesh: a case study, access here 
[4] The project started with a detailed field assessment of the on-site WASH facilities in three neighborhoods within Ward 10. This formed the basis of a pilot plan to rehabilitate and maintain existing infrastructure and services, and to create affordable new sanitation services in the ward. The project also developed a financial analysis of costs and a business model to support the local governmental authority, Khulna City Corporation, to replicate such a model to other slum areas