Sanitation comes to the slums

Jane Landon and Nick Fairclough look at two examples of how WaterAid is trying to stem the tide

The two million slum-dwellers of Dhaka in Bangladesh endure some of the most difficult living conditions on earth. Squalor, sickness and infant deaths from preventable diseases are daily realities for a growing population without access to safe water and sanitation.

WaterAid is one of the development agencies working in collaboration with local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Dhaka to develop a series of community-managed waterpoints which offer an affordable source of clean drinking water and a place to bathe and wash clothes. Some waterpoints also have a latrine for public use - a tremendous improvement for communities where lack of sanitation forces nine out of 10 families to go to the toilet in ditches, rivers and primitive open latrines.

It is not just poverty that denies safe drinking water to nearly two out of three people in Dhaka's slums, but the profiteering of local mustans or strongmen, selling water at inflated prices from sources illegally drawn from the city water supply.

Predictably, schemes to build and maintain new water pumps legally connected to the water mains are actively opposed by mustans. To meet this challenge, WaterAid works closely with locally-based NGOs which have the unique skills and experience to mobilise the slum inhabitants and to navigate through the red tape and corruption.

With land suitable for waterpoints in very short supply, one such NGO, known as DSK, backs local community groups in a constant battle with landowners to establish new legal water connections. According to Clarissa Brocklehurst, Water-Aid's representative in Bangladesh, the relationship with locally- based NGOs who have the cultural experience and local know-how is crucial to developing projects in such environments.

"The community groups can be easily influenced by the mustans. To combat this, DSK set up two committees for the running of each waterpoint. Water collection here, as in many parts of the developing world, is women's work. The first committee, which manages the day-to-day arrangements of the site, is made up of women only. A second smaller committee, of men only, deals with problems of pressure from mustans or corrupt petty officials such as meter readers," says Brocklehurst.

"The waterpoints set up by DSK are legal and the bills get paid - a most unusual occurrence in Dhaka's slums. As a result, DSK has won a hard-fought battle to gain the support of the Dhaka City Corporation and the city water authority," she adds.

The waterpoints develop a regular clientele, not unlike a corner shop for water. A caretaker appointed from the local committee collects the money and makes sure that the pump is maintained. On average, Dhaka slum dwellers spend less than a penny a day for their supply. The money repaid is used to fund other water points, and so far one waterpoint has paid for itself within a year.

WaterAid's work in Dhaka currently receives substantial funding from Glaxo Wellcome plc. The donation from the pharmaceutical company funds a two-year pilot project to develop safe water and sanitation facilities and to promote greater health and hygiene awareness. WaterAid is also funding an urban sanitation research project to ensure that the most appropriate and cost-effective latrine and sewage disposal technologies are employed.

"The challenge is to reach the poor people who need water who are often invisible," says Brocklehurst.

"These are people who work all day in order to eat that night. Establishing a waterpoint as a business is all about improving quality of life."

- Jane Landon

Bangladesh factfile

q Daily 700 children under five die from diarrhoeal disease.

In urban slums one in five children die in the first year of life. On average, each mother loses two children in infancy.

In the capital, Dhaka, 20 per cent of people live in slums.

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