Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF jointly declared open defecation in Bangladesh to be at 1%. The journey towards zero open defecation is integral to Bangladesh’s development success story, and is central to the country’s overall success in sanitation.
However, the construction of thousands of pit latrines without ensuring proper hygienic separation of excreta from human contact has emerged as a second generation sanitation problem for Bangladesh.
A combination of high population density, rapid and unplanned growth and inadequate service provisions makes human excreta management particularly challenging in Bangladesh. With the exception of Dhaka, none of the cities have designated dumping sites or treatment plants for faecal sludge (FS). Consequently, manual sweepers dump the sludge in nearby open drains or water-bodies. In Dhaka too, most safety tanks and pits are connected directly with the storm drainage system linked to open water bodies. This practice ultimately regenerates the risks of faecal matter re-entering the domestic environment.
In the absence of safe emptying, transportation, dumping and treatment mechanism, faecal sludge in most parts of Bangladesh is emptied manually and dumped in water bodies. Thus most of the sludge generated is going back to surface water, ultimately negating the gains achieved through increased sanitation coverage. This is environmental pollution on a massive scale, as well as a serious health threat.
In this context, WaterAid Bangladesh, along with its partner BASA (Bangladesh Association for Social Advancement) has set up a pilot plant in Bangladesh’s Tangail district’s Shakhipur municipality that aims to demonstrate how faecal sludge can be managed and ultimately turned into a useful, even profitable product using the process of Fecal Sludge Management (FSM). WaterAid Bangladesh is working with the Municipality and the Department of Agriculture in order to distribute and use these compost as soil conditioner locally.
The diagram below depicts the steps of the process.
There are very few FSM initiatives in Bangladesh, and mostly at very small scale. Among those, what sets this innovation apart is the maintenance of aerobic environment and higher than usual temperature inside the compost matrix, which reduces the moisture content and limits bacterial contamination.
“50+ degree Celsius during composting is good for decomposition but no one ever tried to make the matured compost safe before and in Shakhipur, that’s what we did successfully,” says Dr Abdullah Al-Muyeed of the Urban Sanitation Programme Support Unit of WaterAid UK.
A very interesting aspect of the project is the take up of the compost produced. This is completely safe for use, and has gained popularity amongst local farmers for its visible impact on production.
“In Shakhipur, farmers found that the Shakhi compost is not only rich in nutrients but also it has capability to retain water which is necessary to grow produce such as ginger,” says Dr Muyeed.
“They also found that the cost is about 1/5th that of chemical fertilisers in same field but with a higher yield of production,” he adds.
Farmer Abdur Rahman of Shakhipur has been using Shakhi Compost in his vegetable field to grow snake gourd and cucumber. He already harvested about 125 maunds of cucumber in the same land where he grew the snake gourd using the compost.
“The use of Shakhi Compost makes the snake gourd heavier and longer than using chemical fertiliser only,” Rahman said.
Another user – farmer Suraiya – said she has cultivated green chillies using Shakhi Compost and the yield is twice that of her green chillli production last year.
While the pilot is surely inspiring, some programmatic as well as technical challenges exist with its implementation. Dr Muyeed says that since this is still a very new initiative in Bangladesh, sensitizing the local government and the local residents was particularly challenging initially. Moreover, the farmers want the compost for free or a very low price, and the soil conditioner is facing competition with the government subsidized chemical fertilizer.
Scaling up the initiative
Tackling second generation sanitation i.e. faecal sludge is a new add-on in governmental policy in Bangladesh, and in order to scale up this pilot, the following four steps need to be taken:
Firstly, the government has recently developed the institutional and regulatory framework for tackling faecal sludge but steps need to be taken to make it operational. The Local Government Act 2009 may need to be amended accordingly.
Secondly, the capacity of local government needs to be built to tackle such a sanitation problem.
Thirdly, the compost/soil conditioner from faecal sludge needs to be recognized as organic fertilizer as per governmental policy to increase its marketability
Finally, government subsidies for chemical fertilizers need to be reduced/removed to make the product competitive.