According to a 2017 study by ActionAid Bangladesh, in association with UK Aid, more than 90% of public toilets run by the city corporations are unusable
Public urination is an urban plague, especially in a city as densely populated and swiftly growing as Dhaka. The situation got so bad in 2015 that the Ministry of Religious Affairs had to launch a campaign appealing to people’s piety, putting up notices in Arabic to prevent public urination.
Although the city had a very few public toilets back then, they were frequently decried as unusable, especially for women and differently abled people.
According to a 2017 study by ActionAid Bangladesh, in association with UK Aid, more than 90% of public toilets run by the city corporations are unusable. Most of these facilities were reported 96% unsafe, 54% of them lacked sanitation facilities, and 91.5% were reported unhygienic and dirty.
Today, there are 67 public toilets available to pedestrians, a very low number considering the nearly two crore city population. Authorities say the situation has improved as both city corporations partnered with WaterAid to refurbish several public toilets with modern furnishings and facilities.
Over the last five years, with support from the H&M Foundation, WaterAid, the Dhaka, Sylhet and Chittagong city corporations have built over 30 public toilets with modern facilities that have been used over nine million times by commuters, according to the NGO.
Rich or poor, everyone in Dhaka has had to hold a full bladder on the road at some point in their lives.
In a visit to at least 10 public toilets in different areas, some toilets managed by third-party groups were found in satisfactory condition, but most were unclean and unhygienic.
Inside Dhaka New Market, the market staff operate a public toilet whose facilities were found to be filthy.
Another public toilet between the National Mosque and Bangabandhu Stadium was also found to be extremely unclean. A public toilet in Jatrabari was also found closed.
Three public toilets around Hatirjheel were found under lock and key, with no supervisor in sight for several hours. The toilets appeared to have been appropriated to be used as sheds to house traffic cones.
But where the toilets were open, service was found to be prompt. Sahana Khatun, one of the caretakers of Gabtoli Bus Terminal’s public toilet, said the toilets are cleaned every 10 minutes.
Users expressed their satisfaction. Abul Hossain from Indira Road, said he frequently uses the nearby public toilet and has never found any reason to complain.
Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) Mayor, Atiqul Islam, recently said they have built some public toilets maintaining five-star hotel standards, where clean water, soap, tissue paper, and towels are available. The mayor says they are of the same standard as the ones refurbished in association with WaterAid.
Newly-refurbished public toilets in Tejgaon, Kathalbagan, and Banglamotor, which have been refurbished, are equipped with showers, lavatories, drinking water, disability access, and lockers.
The cost of using the toilets ranges from Tk5 to Tk15. They charge Tk5 for urination and defecation, and Tk10 for a shower. Purified drinking water is supplied in one-time glasses for Tk1 only,, and a locker fee is Tk5.
People have to wear supplied slippers to enter the toilets. People are not allowed to take their own shoes in.
There are also special arrangements for differently abled people in some toilets. All the newly made toilets directed by the city corporations are under CCTV surveillance.
Are public toilets suitable for women?
Even though many public toilets are usable, they are still few and far between. The problems arising from a lack of usable public toilets affects women more than men. Doctors routinely warn that delaying urination is one of the major causes of urinary tract infection (UTI), an infection that women are more susceptible to. According to the World Health Organisation, poor sanitation is linked to transmission of diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio.
Caretakers of 10 public toilets told Dhaka Tribune that during the peak hours of 2pm-10pm, only 25-30 women used those toilets compared to 200-250 men.
Bhumijo, a social enterprise that works to upgrade the quality of public toilets has installed a remarkable toilet for the dedicated use of women in Gawsia Market’s Noor Mansion. The toilet has earned widespread praise for its state-of-the-art design and modern amenities.
According to Bhumijo, a survey in Dhaka from 2016-2017 found that 80% of women avoid drinking water before leaving the house for fear of not finding proper toilets.
Bhumijo founder and CEO, Farhana Rashid, told Dhaka Tribune that women in the New Market area prefer to use the toilet dedicated for women in Gawsia, for its user friendly environment.
"I think social taboos and the tendency of women not to use toilets outside, are why many women don’t use public toilets . Female toilets have to be designed to be user friendly for women of all backgrounds. If the male toilet is nearby, it often discourages women from using the toilet," Farhana added.
More public toilets in the works
According to official records, 76 public toilets, 21 in Dhaka North and 55 in Dhaka South city corporations, are now in operation in Dhaka.
Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) Public Relations Officer, Uttam Kumar Roy, said they will build 32 new public toilets, and 29 of them have been completed.
“There are 17 old toilets, seven have been renovated and 10 other are being restored. WaterAid and DSCC jointly installed nine toilets in different places. As part of the Jol Sobuj Dhaka project, we are also preparing another 31 public toilets. So, eventually the DSCC will provide 89 public toilets,” he told Dhaka Tribune.
Dr Tariq Bin Yousuf, chief urban planner of DNCC, told Dhaka Tribune that they aim to set up 100 public toilets within two years.
“We will have 53 public toilets ready within this year. We also plan to install at least one public toilet in every park."
WaterAid and DNCC jointly set up 18 toilets, the World Toilet Association and the DNCC jointly set up another two, and the DNCC built one on its own. These 21 public toilets are in operation right now under the DNCC.
The many plans of the mayors
Both Dhaka mayors have revealed their own plans for public toilets.
DNCC Mayor Atiqul Islam recently said the DNCC will build public toilets at CNG refueling stations and petrol pumps if the owners provide space for the facilities. He also mentioned developing toilets at city corporation markets to make them more user friendly and hygienic.
DSCC Mayor Sayeed Khokon said the DSCC will transfer management of commercials on LED-screen billboards to select NGOs so they can operate modern toilets with the rental income of those screens.