Water, sanitation and waste | Blogs

  • World Habitat Day: Why public spaces matter for the urban poor

    This week the world marked World Habitat Day under the theme of Public Spaces for All. The day celebrates the importance of the world’s cities and human settlements to our global economy and well-being.World-Habitat-Day

    The day has added significance this year because, for the first time, the role of cities and human settlements has been recognised as a key driver of development. It has been included as Goal 11 of the newly passed ‘Sustainable Development Goals’.

    Practical Action was part of the campaign to ensure this goal was included because the towns and cities of the developing world will be where almost all population growth will be concentrated in the next 50 years. Having a dedicated goal around it ensures a focus on cities and local authorities (not just national governments) as vital to creating a sustainable future. It should also help address one of the world’s most glaring aspects of inequality, that found between the rich and poor within cities.

    Practical Action has worked for nearly 20 years on improving the lives of slum dwellers. Our current 5-year strategy has seen us ramp up our commitment, planning to double the proportion of our project work that focuses on the urban poor. This would bring it closer in line with the proportion of the world’s poor that now live in cities (around 25%).Faridpur slum pathway

    We support this year’s focus on public spaces because we’ve seen how important they are in the lives of poor people. This is not just about space for leisure. It is critical to people’s livelihoods:

    The battle for sustainable development will be won and lost in cities. Public open space is a vital resource for the poor, and a key part of how cities can either be made more or less friendly to the needs of the poor. Let’s celebrate the public open spaces we love and recognise they are not a luxury, but a vital part of many people’s lives.

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  • New SDG on WASH is great, but 3 things to watch for

    Since the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were agreed in 2000, the profile and importance of access to an ‘improved’ source of drinking water and sanitation has risen. A landmark was achieved in 2010 with the passing of the Human Right to Water and Sanitation. Ending open defecation has become a key topic for UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson. Many governments have set themselves challenging commitments and targets. And as part of the set of Sustainable Development Goals to be adopted this week (good summary from The Guardian here), universal access to a higher standard of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) has been included as a full goal (not a sub-target as previously in the MDGs).

    The SDGs aim to be ambitious. Aspirational. And in they certainly are for WASH. Goal 6 is to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. Not only are we now aiming for universal access, but we have raised the bar higher in terms of quality too (Target 6.1 is for ‘safe and affordable drinking water’ and Target 6.2 is for ‘adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all’ measured as the population using ‘safely managed’ services).

    Collecting water from a protected spring, in Kisumu, Kenya. This counts as an 'improved water source', but could still be contaminated.

    Collecting water from a protected spring, in Kisumu, Kenya. This counts as an ‘improved water source’, but could still be contaminated.

    Are we likely to be able to rise to the challenge? The MDG has certainly helped increase pressure for action (as Simon Trace reflects), and the world met the MDG target for water in 2010 (88% of people with access to an improved source of drinking water) – we are now at 91% coverage according to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme. And yet it is estimated that globally at least 1.8 billion people use a drinking-water source contaminated with faeces, and in urban areas of sub-Saharan Africa, the situation has deteriorated. On sanitation, the world has missed its MDG target of 77% coverage by almost 700 million. There are still a billion open-defecators and 2.4 billion without access to an improved (never mind a ‘safely managed’) toilet. Hygiene was not part of the MDGs and its inclusion now is welcome, and yet countries are spending less than 1% of their WASH budget on hygiene promotion.

    Practical Action works in particular on the WASH needs of poor urban communities. Once the SDGs have been signed, what are the three big things we will be keeping a close eye on as the international community and national governments start to think about how the goals can be implemented:

    1. Who is prioritised? There is concern being voiced about whether the push for a higher quality of WASH access will draw resources away from the needs of the poorest who are without even a basic level of access. The JMP is committed to continuing to monitor both ‘improved’ and ‘safely managed’ access – but will this provide enough incentive? Will governments choose ‘safely managed’ for the few over ‘improved’ access for all? Will the poorest, including slum dwellers, continue to be left behind?
    2. The right technologies and approaches? Will the push for ‘safely managed’ sanitation encourage governments towards high-cost sewerage and treatment plants that are beyond the means of poor communities and fail to deal with the reality of existing on-site sanitation systems (as highlighted by the 2014 GLAAS report)? These kinds of investments divert funds from where it is most needed, and do not reach poor communities.
    3. Holding governments to account. Duncan Green is concerned that the SDG debate has been too technocratic, and not enough about getting traction with national governments. We know that if something is not measured, it will continue to be ignored, so we are part of the call for a dedicated hygiene indicator under the WASH goal. We also know it remains challenging to properly represent the situation for slum dwellers compared to the rest of the city. We will keep asking for this data, and comparing our own findings with official figures. As part of coalitions at national and global levels we will be part of holding governments to account for the commitments they have made, through for example Sanitation and Water for All.

    Overall, the SDGs offer an ambitious vision for the future. If they are going to be worth something, we will all need to rise to the challenge, making sure that no-one is left behind.

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  • They came, they saw and they conquered

    Ananta Prasad

    September 15th, 2015

    “…we tend to think of development, not in terms of evolution, but in terms of creation.”

    E. F. Schumacher

    Three slums, three women and their amazing work has made them agents of change. Yes, we are talking about our very own Bhubaneswar and the untold stories of three women whose efforts have made lives better and easier for the whole community.

    Coming under ward number 22 of Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation, this slum had some serious problems. Most of the male residents, who work as daily wage workers and females work as servants in nearby smarter areas, used to face the common problem of defecating in the open every single day. When it comes to women and young girls avoiding male eyes was the most awkward task and they struggled every morning to find a space. They had to go either before sunrise or after sunset to hide in order to defecate. It was a matter of shame till the women group got united and fought for a solution.


    Community Toilet in Birsa Munda Slum, Bhubaneswar

    The local sanitation group led by Ms Ranjulata Mohapatra, united the women in the community and despite many hurdles they mobilised around 26,000 and gathered more support from organisations like Practical Action and European Commission and built a community toilet with facilities for both men and women. For more than two years those toilets have served their communities. Looking at this gesture the local authority also constructed another community toilet at a nearby community which is also serving the people.

    Talking about the management of the toilet, Ranjulata adds, “We have a sanitation committee which takes care of the daily operation of the toilet. Every family has been given two duplicate keys (one for male and one for female members) and any point of time anyone from our community can use the toilet using their keys. We are collecting 20 rupees per house per month from each of the families. The collected amount covers our expenses for electricity, fees for the regular cleaner, other maintenance and rest we keep for contingencies. The toilet is connected with piped water which lessens the burden on people to carry buckets of water. Hence, it has been of immense help for women, child and senior citizens of the community. We are aware of other slums who are still defecating in open, but all it needs is strong determination and cooperation to make life easier which we did and we are thankful before Practical Action, who supported us financially as well as advocating our fight for a respectful life.” It is noted that this project was a collaboration of Practical Action and European Commission who provided the financial assistance for the developmental works.

    Similarly, in a slum like Dumduma Satya Nagar, a highly populated area with few individual toilets, it was saddening that people were not using the existing community toilet and were still defecating in open. With much persuasion the local women from Amar Sanchaya Samiti have taken a lead and now successfully run the community toilet which is serving hundreds of people every morning. It is noted, that the community toilet has been there for the last 6 years, but it was defunct and unused for a considerable period. Since they have taken charge, they have made their best efforts to run it for the people. However, it has also been self-sustaining by meeting its regular needs as in electricity and cleaner fees as well as the regular maintainance.


    Members of Amar Sanchaya Samiti who takes care of the Community Toilet in Dumduma Satya Nagar.

    Two women of the 14 member sanitation group take care of the regular opening of the toilet and collection of users’ fee 4 rupees per person and this happens on rotation basis. Every two months new members take charge. Every day they deposit the collected amount and reinvest the same by giving loans to members which generate interest and additional return for the group. However, they admit that still people are defecating in open, but they are continuing their efforts to mobilise them by letting them know the perils of open defecation. This community toilet was tranformed in management and operation under the guidance of Practical Action who has set up a solar panel to light the toilet and basic support to revamp the defunct one with social mobilisation.

    Another group of women under the banner of slum committee led by a community leader Swayamprabha Sahoo in Satya Kali Slum who has been an agent of change by bringing safe drinking water to the doorstep. She has lessened the burden of many women from fetching water from a distance and using water from well for cooking.


    Swayamprabha Sahoo, whose efforts brought drinking water for the people of Satya Kali Slum.

    Located centrally in Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Odisha, the people of Satyakali Basti live in the shadow of urbanization. The slum had 13 personal wells and one stand post provided by the Municipal Corporation for water supply. Now with the installation of two overhead tanks being run by the motor boring which runs through electricity, there are 30 stand posts catering to around 300 houses.

    Practical Action in collaboration with the European Commission has supported the community to build these water points. When inaugurated, there were only 21 stand posts which now the community have installed 9 more with their own efforts and resources.

    While remembering the past, Swayamprabha says, we used to depend on wells mostly for the water, and we have water at our doorstep now. They have formed a committee ‘Satyakali Sangathana’ and collect 20 rupees per household per month. The committee collects the amount and takes care of the proper running of the water system. Apart from the caretaker’s salary and electricity bill and regular maintenance, the committee also saved money from the users’ fee to spend in other developmental activities.

    There are difficulties to live in such unhealthy living conditions in a slum; however, one may see the  glimpse of smile in the sparkling faces of the residents as a talk on the issue of drinking water or open defecation, they have been a winner in their own struggles. They came, they saw their problems and they conquered them.

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  • A day in the life of Tillotama and Rabinarayana

    Ananta Prasad

    September 2nd, 2015

    By Ananta Prasad & Warwick Franklin

    Yesterday we visited two communities who will be included under a new water and sanitation project in Odisha, India. Leaving the hotel at 4.30am(!), we first arrived at Gurujang Jabardastpur in Khurda Municipality while it was still dark. Everyone was still asleep and the silence was deafening. The only noise being the barking of the semi wild dogs that patrolled the single street.

    Rabi Narayan & Tillotama Sahu Our first impression was of a few old people walking down the street with small pots carrying water. As we followed them, we could see a number of men defecating in the nearby field.

    Gradually as the sun came up, families awoke, began to light their indoor cooking stoves, wash off the dishes at the open wells and go to the field which they used as their toilets.

    We were invited to spend the morning with Mr & Mrs Rabi Narayan Sahu and Tillotama Sahu, and their young daughter (16) and son (7).  They were happy for us to film and photograph their daily routine.

    They showed us the well that they shared with five other families for all their household needs such as cooking, cleaning and drinking, and told us of having to go to a plot of land behind the house which was used as a toilet. Mrs Sahu explained that she and her daughter only went there in the early morning and evening to avoid male eyes. However, this brought with it the danger of snakes (particularly deadly cobras) and insects. They have to collect 35-40 bucket loads of water a day for the household.

    We saw the son leave for school and the daughter (who finished school last year, because they could not afford her education) begin to clean the house and prepare their food on a smoky clay stove, which filled our eyes and throats with choking fumes.

    Mrs Sahu working on her loom

    Mrs Sahu then explained her weaving work on a hand loom. Mr Sahu was then preparing to leave in search of work as a daily labourer.  She could earn 80p from making a saree  (5 hour’s work) while he could earn £3 per day for 8-10 hours physically exhausting toil. However, there was no guarantee of his getting such work.

    Mr Sahu explained that they had no savings and they spent what little they earned on food, electricity (a few light bulbs, two fans and a TV), medicines and the education costs for his son.

    Mrs Sahu and her husband looked forward to escaping from the shame of open defecation and the availability of clean water.

    We all felt a privilege to have been able to share a few hours with this family and look forward to their being part of the new project and enjoying a significant improvement to their daily lives.

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  • What the increasing use of desalination means for the world

    Jonny Casey

    August 25th, 2015

    Hundreds of new desalination plants are cropping up across the globe to meet the growing needs for water – estimated to be increasing by an astonishing 640bn liters per year. But as the world looks towards technology to solve the growing crisis of fresh water access, what does this mean for people and our planet? (more…)

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  • This slum was nothing like I expected

    Elizabeth Dunn

    August 21st, 2015

    I’ve just come to the end of a 10 day visit to Bangladesh, it was my first time to the country and I feel privileged to have been able to go and visit such a beautiful place and meet such remarkable people. What I like about working for Practical Action is that it works in partnership with communities and organisations to drive change and improve lives. And this is exactly what I saw in Bangladesh.

    putulAs part of the visit, I went to slums in Faridpur and Jessore in the south. I’m lucky to have travelled and seen quite a lot of our projects but I’ve never seen any urban work before and was very unsure what to expect.

    When people say the word slum, all the worst images come to mind, I had visions of cramped communities, sewage running between them, a complete lack of water and sanitation, not to mention the terrible smells. I could not have been more wrong.

    I should tell you before I carry on that Practical Action has been working with these communities for a few years. The people living in the slums are considered to be the lowest caste, they are hindu and considered by many to be unclean and uneducated. This means that life is even harder for them as they do not have the same opportunities as others do. They have always carried out the most menial jobs such as street cleaning and pit emptying.

    Before the project began, I was told that there was no drainage, so during monsoon season the water would rise and would wash dirty water into their small homes.

     They also had no waste collection, so they had no other choice but to live amongst their own rubbish, or to dispose of it on the streets.

    There were no schools and many people had no skills meaning they struggled to gain employment.

    This project has worked with the women, children and men of these communities to truly lift themselves out of this poverty. They still live in cramped homes but the feeling of ‘community’ and unity amongst them was something rarely seen. They all work together to help each other and not only are their living conditions changing, the impact is much much bigger.

    Training in useful and vital skills means that people can earn an income, people just like Rashida. Rashida explained “at the beginning I had nothing. From Practical Action I had training and I was able to start my business with these skills.” Rashida was trained in tailoring, she makes tops, dresses, shirts and just about anything! This training means so much to her, she said “I can send my children to school and invest in the future.”

    I also met a lady called Sukia, she told me that “the environment of the slum is better than before,” they had less toilets and no water. They were forced to collect water from other sources but this water was often dirty. But now, they have their own pump, which means that they no longer have to risk their health just to have a drink.

    I left feeling uplifted and inspired. These people were empowered and had the knowledge to continue improving their own lives. It was a true example of sustainability and I will be telling everyone about the great work that Practical Action and our partners are doing to support the amazing, strong and welcoming people that are living in the slums. Just like Sukia said, “you and me make a difference together.”











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  • Dalit communities plan their own future

    Amanda Ross

    August 20th, 2015

    Would attending your local council budget setting meeting be high on your wish list? Certainly not on mine!  But the Dalit community of Jessore in Bangladesh, consider the right to attend these meetings one of their proudest achievements. The minority Dalit community who live in slum areas previously faced exclusion because of their caste from all political, social and economic activity and traditionally work in very low paid jobs as road sweepers, pit latrine emptiers and cleaners.

    IMG_0316Last week I visited some of these communities along with partner organisation DHARA who are working with Practical Action to improve the living conditions of these minorities. This is the second phase of the pro-poor urban development project, IUD2, which has been running since 2012 and is funded by the European Commission and DFID.  The project is also operating in Faridpur in Bangladesh, Butwal and Bharatpur in Nepal and Kurunegala and Akkaraipattu in Sri Lanka

    The first step was to develop a Community Improvement Plan to prioritise the work they wanted to see done in each area and to select community leaders to voice their demands to the municipality.

    Sukia (above in the green sari), a widow in her late thirties, was chosen as a leader of her area, Old Pourashava, a dalit area for about 200 years. It is a small community of in a dense cluster, accessed from an alley off the main road.  The streets are narrow – suitable only for pedestrians and bicycles.

    Sukia is enthusiastic about the project’s achievements:

    “Previously the ground here was covered in waste, water, mud and urine, now we have a paved walkway with drainage.  Our environment is better than ever before.  Before we collected water from a dirty source, now we have clean water from our deep tube well and a wall to give some privacy from the main road when we are washing.”

    She speaks with the confidence of a woman proud to represent her community. She goes on to tell us that while before there were only 2 toilets for the 30 household in Pourashava, they now have 1 for every 10 families, with a member of the community given the job of keeping them clean and in working order.  When it rains heavily (as it does frequently in the monsoon season) the water now flows down holes in the pathway into the drains instead of flooding houses as in the past.

    Tube well Old Pourashava JessoreSukia showed us their community action plan and explained that they still have work to do on improving housing and creating an area boundary but she is confident that now they will be able to access municipality funding, something they would not have dreamed of five years ago.

    The partner organisation DHARA, led by the highly charismatic Lipika Das Gupta (above behind Sukia in the pink sari) are helping to deliver similar improvements in 5 other dalit communities in Jessore, working with 1,824 beneficiaries, half of whom are women.

    IUD2 project achievements in Jessore

    • 6 Settlement Improvement Committees formed and given leadership and governance training
    • Training on tailoring, handicraft, mechanics and mobile servicing to 1,836 beneficiaries for income generation and 28 sewing machines
    • Budget allocation from the municipality for Dalit communities for the first time
    • Infrastructure development – protected water pumps, toilets, drainage, road surfacing and a community centre in each area

    But the main achievement has been to give a voice to this Dalit minority. Women especially have been empowered to talk to people in authority and to request improvements in their living conditions.  As a result have boosted their status, their environment and their incomes.

    Sukia spoke enthusiastically about the future: “With your support we will be able to complete our plan. I am so proud that I can now do something for my family.”

    This is a demonstration of local democracy in action and a truly uplifting experience.

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  • A man who sold his mobile to build an improved toilet is a role model in his community

    Dev Bhatta

    July 10th, 2015

    Ramkishor Khaira, 38, the head of a household of eight from Khairanjhal Tole, Gulariya Municipality, Bardiya radiates with pride over his newly constructed toilet including a bathroom.

    Ramkishor recalls, “I worked in Malaysia as a wage labourer for three years. After I went back, I wanted to construct a toilet at my household but wondered how I would manage the financial resources to build it. Finally, I decided to sell my mobile to start toilet construction.”

    Ramkishor shows his improved toilet

    Ramkishor shows his improved toilet

    He sold his mobile for NPR 20,000 (£129) and started to build a toilet including bathroom. He was unable to complete the structure within this budget. So, he also sold his buffalo and completed the construction that costed NPR 40,000 (£258).

    Previously, he and his family members faced a lot of problems from not having a toilet. Ramkishor’s mother Jalabarshi Khaira, aged 60 says, “It was very difficult for my family to go to the bushes. There was always fear of snakes and it was a huge trouble during rainy season and at night time. When a guest arrived in the community, it was embarrassing if they were not used to defecating in the open. Various water borne diseases were common mainly among children in my family. The three children in our house suffered from diarrhoea frequently about 3-4 times a year. We used to spend around NRs 7,000 (£45) to 9,000 (£58) a year on medical expenses.”

    Ramkishor’s mother Jalabarshi Khaira is happy to have a toilet.

    Ramkishor’s mother Jalabarshi Khaira is happy to have a toilet.

    But things have changed for the family now and they are very pleased with this change. Ramkishor shares, “Because of the toilet, my home and surrounding environment is cleaner, odourless and healthier. It is more convenient for my family. I do not regret selling my mobile phone as I got this great facility as a replacement.”

    He provides four full-proof reasons that compelled him to construct a toilet:

    1. Getting used to using toilets in Malaysia
    2. Pressure from his wife
    3. A video documentary  on sanitation organised by SAFA & SWASTHA Gulariya project and
    4. The provision of sanitation cards commenced by Gulariya Municipality

    Practical Action and Environment and Public Health Organization (ENPHO) launched SAFA & SWASTHA Gulariya project in August 2014 for two years in collaboration with Gulariya Municipality with the objective of declaring an Open Defecation Free Gulariya Municipality by 2015. The project operates with innovative community mobilisation approaches through HCES (Household Centered Environmental Sanitation), CLTS (Community Led Total Sanitation) and SLTS (School Led Total Sanitation) for activating communities to progressively work towards stopping open defecation in the entire municipality.

    Jalabarshi, Ramkishor’s mother, now feels dignified using the toilet, “I learnt about the adverse effects of open defecation. I did not want to be the one causing pollution and exposing other people to risks. So, I easily acknowledged the proposal of my son. I find it very convenient using it instead of going to the bushes. This gives me privacy to do my business with dignity. And our children have not fallen sick for the last seven months after the construction of the toilet.”

    Ramkishor’s household has become a role model in his community as many started following his example and constructed toilets in the same design as his. Apart from Ramkishor’s example, his fellow community members participated in behaviour change campaigns organised by SAFA & SWASTHA Gulariya project which emphasise the significance of improved sanitation and hygiene. This motivated them to have their own toilets.UK AID

    Now the entire community of Khairanjhal has become Open Defecation Free (ODF) as all 71 households have broken off from the traditional practice of defecating in the open after constructing improved toilets in their homes. This proves that change starts from a single person.

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  • Can we recycle human waste into a useful resource?

    Hasin Jahan

    July 6th, 2015

    In the national sanitation survey in Bangladesh in 2003 it was observed that only 58% households had some form of latrines whereas the remaining 42% of households had no latrines at all.

    With a special compost from human wastedrive undertaken by the Government of Bangladesh and development partners with the active engagement of local government institutions and communities, sanitation progress gained momentum with a focus on building different types of low-cost pit latrines. As a result, the open defecation rate has been reduced to less than 3%. But does this mean the problem has been solved? Not really, rather a second generation sanitation problem has emerged in Bangladesh.

    In this country, about 80 metric tons of human waste is generated every day of which only 960 tons is treated at Pagla treatment plant – only about 1%. The question is what happens to the remaining waste?

    Less than a quarter of Dhaka city area has a sewerage network. In Dhaka, where there is no sewerage network, more than half of the buildings do not have any proper septic tanks and the sewer pipelines of these buildings are directly connected to either the open drain or to the storm drainage system polluting the surface water and the environment. A huge number of pit latrines exist in rural areas and low income urban communities. Due to the rapid expansion of low-cost latrines, pits fill quickly and require frequent emptying. Even septic tanks (not connected to sewerage network) require emptying at longer intervals.

    Growing vegetables with human-sludge-compost is used as manureInterestingly, people in general are not aware about how this waste is disposed and how it impacts the surrounding environment. There is no proper emptying mechanism for pits or septic tanks. In most cases, it is done manually by sweepers when the problem becomes visible by overflowing or creating nuisance. The sweepers dilute the substances with water mixed with kerosene oil and dump it manually to the nearby open drain. Mechanical suction devices such as vacutugs are rarely used and when they are used, they dispose the human waste into open drains or nearby ditches. Current waste removal practices invariably pollute the shallow aquifer.

    The country has put enormous emphasis on promoting low-cost latrines without thinking of waste management. Recycling of the human waste by converting it into proper organic fertilizer would be one practical solution. Bangladesh uses around 3.5 million tons of fertilizer every year of which about 2.6 million tons are imported. Government provides a subsidy of around 18 taka (15p) per kg of fertiliser to  farmers. Hypothetically if we could convert the entire amount of human waste produced in the country into organic fertilizer, it will make 3 million tons which will be more than the amount we import every year. Even if we could utilize a certain percentage of this potential, it would be a huge gain for the country. However, this should not only be considered from a monetary perspective; use of this fertilizer will improve soil texture and most importantly, prevent surface water pollution.

    vegetable field human-sludge-compost used as manureRecently different actors have shown interest in human waste management and are experimenting on several small scale initiatives. Unfortunately there is no proper human waste management value chain in Bangladesh. Creating awareness among the masses and sensitizing them to their roles as citizens are critically important along with clarifying the roles of the city authorities. Emphasis should be given to introducing technologies in different country contexts and promoting the use of organic fertilizer. Entrepreneurship should be developed for collection and transportation of waste. Most importantly actors like department of agriculture, agricultural universities, research agencies and private sectors should introduce standardization of organic fertilizers and explore marketing strategies for the products. However changing the mindset of the people and the policy makers remains a challenge.


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  • Just throw it on the ground! Waste disposal in Nairobi’s informal settlements

    June 29th, 2015

    From May, 2015, three university students joined Practical Action, Eastern Africa, as interns within the Urban WASH team to assist in conducting research for the “Technology and the Future of Work” project, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. The WASH intern team consists of Eric Mugaa and Charles Kwena, both in their fifth year at the University of Nairobi in the Civil Engineering programme, and Megan Douglas, a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh in the International Development programme. The project is examining the enabling and disabling impacts of technologies on work opportunities among informal workers in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Read about Megan’s reflections from her time in the field…..

    By Megan Douglas

    Megan pic

    On a recent research trip to Kawangware, one of Nairobi’s informal settlements, our field guide contact treated me to a large slice of watermelon from a roadside vendor, packaged in plastic wrap to keep it fresh. After finishing my slice, the warm juice running in rivers down my arms and the wrapper growing sticky in my hand, I looked around for a bin to dispose of the waste. “There are no rubbish bins around here,” my contact laughed. “Just throw it on the ground!”  I couldn’t bring myself to do such a thing; throwing waste on the ground just seemed wrong, despite the multitude of old watermelon rinds and plastic wrappers strewn across the road in front of me. After carrying the rubbish for several minutes, the flies began to come. Begrudgingly, I bent down and gingerly laid the rind in a ditch, where it floated away to join the garbage dam choking Nairobi River. The plastic wrapper I ‘nobly’ stuck in my purse pocket, where it later formed a large sugary stain.


    Is it about having ‘principles’ or having options?

    Being from a relatively clean city in Canada, littering feels foreign to me. It is not only illegal in Canada, punishable by hefty fines, but is also considered by many to be immoral in a sense. I had never seen anything like the sheer enormity of human waste competing for space with homes in Kawangware.

    It isn’t that residents of Kawangware produce more waste; it is that there are few viable options for rubbish disposal. Nor are informal residents apathetic. Many of those interviewed make ‘tsk tsk’s with their tongue against their teeth when surveying the carpet of garbage across the streets. “It’s a shame,” expressed one woman, in response to my question about her opinion of the waste situation, then, immediately following, tossed a black plastic bag she had been eating a samosa out of into a ditch. While it was amusing, I didn’t consider her a hypocrite; her littering doesn’t necessarily discredit the genuineness of her displeasure with the amount of waste on the ground. At times, pragmatism must trump ‘moral’ sentiments in the informal settlements. Either she tossed the oily plastic bag, or carried it in her purse (most likely indefinitely, unless she ventured to the outskirts of the district, costing her time and money, all for the sake of not littering).

    Do I not litter in Canada because I am against littering? Or is it because I don’t have to? Most likely, a combination of both, but the two are likely mutually reinforcing.  Some sort of innate concern for environmental conservation isn’t likely the principal reason I grew up with such an adversity to littering. When you have accessible, affordable and sustainable methods of human waste disposal, one never has to be reminded of the volume of non-biodegradable waste you produce every day; garbage is simply thrown in the trash bin, which is collected once a week, never to be seen again. Canada isn’t without waste. It is one of the world’s largest producers of it. But the difference is that garbage is just shipped off to dumps far away from urban centers, or sent across the ocean to fill another country’s dumpsite, allowing citizens the comfort of never having to be visually reminded of the size of their carbon footprint.

    The poorest of the poor in Nairobi, however, must constantly live with their waste and that of others, piled high in mountains and overflowing into rivers, a visual reminder of the spatial and socio-economic and political marginalization of informal residents. The combination of a high concentration of people (60 percent of Nairobi’s population live on only 5% of the total land mass), the increase in non-biodegradable waste, and the lack of a public waste-collection service within informal settlements, culminates in a shockingly large amount of garbage on the ground, leading to a myriad of environmental and health issues.

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