Uttam Kumar Saha

Uttam Kumar Saha is Head of the Urban Services Programme at Practical Action Bangladesh

Recommended reading: http://www.practicalaction.org

Posts by Uttam

  • The change we want to see for urban slum dwellers

    September 25th, 2018

    Last week the World Bank released an update of its ‘What a Waste’ report. It highlights how over 90% of waste in low-income countries is openly dumped or burned. This affects everyone, but impacts poor people the most. Rubbish is rarely effectively collected in their neighbourhoods. It causes pollution (including 5% of global climate change emissions), acts as a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other diseases and blocks toilets and drains. It can exacerbate the impacts of flooding. Landslides of waste dumps have buried homes. The situation is only likely to get worse as the combination of urbanization and population growth, together with growing consumption, will lead to a 70% increase in global waste in the next 30 years.

    The release of this report coincides with the meeting of our global leadership team, and with re-vitalising of a crucial internal hub drawn from expert staff from across the world, to provide greater leadership and collaboration in our actions.

    Practical Action has been focusing on supporting urban poor communities for nearly 20 years in our programmes in Africa and South Asia. Our teams on the ground have witnessed these changes first hand, and have built up expertise over time on how to work effectively in these contexts with multiple stakeholders: helping slum communities to ensure their voices are heard, and local authorities to be better able to respond.

    Our work over the last few years has focused on basic services: water, sanitation, hygiene and solid waste management. This is because we know that improvements in these issues makes a dramatic difference to the day-to-day realities of women and men. It helps them live healthier lives, less burdened by the struggle of inadequate services and unpleasant, dangerous conditions. It helps restore dignity and ensure they feel included as part of the city. But also it can be a ‘gateway’ to helping them go on to solve other problems they face. We know that there are challenges for urban Local Authorities, who can be poorly staffed and resourced, struggle with effective community engagement, and lack knowledge of the latest appropriate technologies, financing mechanisms or ideas for partnerships.

    On the positive side, the existing informal sector already plays a huge role in delivering essential services in sanitation, water supply and rubbish collection and recycling (as work by WIEGO shows). The World Bank report suggests there are 15 million informal waste pickers in the world, and that if supported to organize this work can be transformed to provide decent livelihoods and support municipalities in delivering a good service. They can be at the heart of the circular economy, and models of green and inclusive growth.

    Practical Action’s work has strong, concrete evidence:

    Linking our areas of work

    Practical Action is also increasingly trying to see the links between different areas of our work – for example linking our work on solid waste management with energy (biogas technologies), or with our work on improving soil organic matter (composting of faecal sludge and kitchen waste).

    In our global strategy, we remain committed to improving the lives of urban poor communities. We are aiming to support the achievement of the SDG goals of universal access to these services in the towns and cities we are working in across Kenya, Bangladesh, India and Nepal.

    Our unique approach works with existing systems and stakeholders, puts poor people at the heart of everything we do, and identifies how the right kinds of technologies can be part of positive change. In a fast-changing world, we need to be agile to respond as these challenges grow. We need to find new ways to walk with some of the world’s most vulnerable people and communities through engaging positively with the private sector, and inspiring local authorities and national departments to be pro-poor in their thinking, actions and financing.

    Internally we are committed to doing even more to promote peer-to-peer learning to challenge and inspire staff as they discuss compelling stories, exchange learning, plan together, and gather our evidence to engage effectively in national and international policy dialogues.

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  • FSM in Bangladesh: How to operationalize the Institutional and Regulatory Framework?

    March 28th, 2018

    Bangladesh is considered a role model in the world for its achievement in providing access to sanitation for all. Currently, more than 99% of people in Bangladesh use toilets. The positive progress has created challenges. Issues such as how to empty the toilets, and how to deal safely with the faecal sludge need to be addressed. Manual emptying by informal workers, and indiscriminate and untreated disposal lead to serious environmental pollution and bring adverse impacts on water quality and public health. The informal emptiers have a big role in the current Faecal Sludge Management (FSM) market system but their dignity and working environment is a big issue.

    Last year (2017), the Government of Bangladesh published an Institutional Regulatory Framework (IRF) setting out the roles, responsibilities and coordination of different agencies (i.e Department of Public Health and Engineering, Utility Companies – WASAs, Urban and Rural Government Institutes & private sector) to tackle the FSM challenges. The framework was developed collaboratively by ITN-BUET (Centre for Water Supply and Waste Management), Practical Action and others and includes many of the key issues Practical Action wanted to see promoted. The initiative is highly appreciated by the global development partners. The burning issue now is how to operationalize this framework and bring visible and tangible impact on the ground.

    The country is yet to develop solutions which are proven to be technically feasible and reliable, socially acceptable, financially and economically viable and can be managed by the existing institutions. However, a number of organizations is doing research, innovations, piloting and demonstration work to create the evidence of the whole FSM service and value chain – including containment, emptying, transportation and treatment of sludge for resource recovery and its market promotion. These endeavors, including our own in Faridpur, have created useful examples and provided evidence in particular circumstances but are yet to go to scale. One of the biggest learnings from these initiatives is that capacities are limited at all tiers i.e. grass roots, local, sub national and national level to improve FSM and to operationalize IRF.  

    The government is not short of resources, and could invest in scaling up solutions for greening the economy and for sustainable growth. The most recent example is the Padma Multi-Purpose Bridge, the biggest infrastructural development project,  which the country developed without any financial assistance from external development partners.

    The time has come to think how we can build national, sub national and local capacity in an integrated, holistic and coordinated way to operationalize the IRF.

    A national capacity building program needs to address different aspects and engage many stakeholders. For example, changes in behavior and community practices for safe disposal of sludge is a big issue. Both social and electronic media has a significant role in popularizing messages to call for actions to stop unsafe disposal. However, the businesses are not properly orientated and they lack capacity.

    Informal groups, small and medium entrepreneurs and large scale private companies can play a big role in operating the business of improving the FSM services and treatment businesses. The local authority can invite the private sector and can create public private partnerships to leverage resources to improve the services. However, their institutional capacity is not up to the mark for design, development, management and monitoring this partnership.

    The professional capacity of consulting firms to design context specific appropriate FSM schemes is also an issue. The contractors that are responsible for construction of the faecal sludge treatment plant, secondary transfer stations and other physical facilities are yet to be developed. Similarly, the capacity of local manufacturers to fabricate pumps, machines and vehicles to empty and to transfer the sludge to the disposal sites is yet to be developed. Last but not least, finance institutions (including development banks, climate and green financing agencies, micro financing organizations) need to understand the sector better and focus on building their capacities to make sure there is enough investment to tackle the issues on FSM. The Department of Environment (DoE) needs to be on board for setting and regulating standards for improved FSM. Research & development capacity is extremely limited, especially when it comes to researching different aspects – particularly social, economic, environmental and health aspects. The Government should have a National Plan of Action for effective implementation of IRF on the ground.

    The emerging question is how to build this local and national capacity to optimize the impact from the current and future investment programs around FSM by the Government of Bangladesh and their lending partners Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. This capacity building is a big responsibility and cannot be delivered by any single organization alone.

    The country urgently needs to form a coalition/consortium of FSM organizations – led by Policy Support Branch of the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development & Cooperatives. These parties can designate and hire credible organizations to make a good action plan for short, medium and long term in participation with all stakeholders. This consortium should utilize the comparative strength of each organization and the organizations should not compete with each other. Practical Action is keen to play a part in such a consortium, drawing from our experiences on the ground, and our knowledge of ‘where capacities are lacking’ and ‘what are the best ways of building them.

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  • Second generation sanitation challenges in Bangladesh

    May 27th, 2016

    Practical Action, Bangladesh, ITN BUET, DSK and The Daily Star jointly organized a national round table on faecal sludge management (FSM) on 17th May, to meet the second generation sanitation challenge. Around 25 senior representatives attended representing government, civil society, the private sector, donors, networks and think tanks.

    The first roundtable on FSM in Bangladesh started with a welcome by the Hasin Jahan, Country Director of Practical Action. She highlighted the engagement of ‘beyond WASH’ stakeholders to meet this new challenge. The Director of ITN BUET presented on the evolution from open defecation to FSM, the extent of the problem and the recently developed National FSM Institutional and Regulatory Framework to define who and how to handle this second generation challenge.

    Current Challenges

    ilot sludge treatment plant FaridpurThe current FSM market is driven by traditional sanitation workers in cities and municipalities but their operational safety, security, hygiene, wages, recognition and inclusion are all big issues. Some municipalities, supported by NGOs, have developed a sanitation action plan and demonstrated Vacutag machines and trucks for the collection and transportation of sludge and treatment plants using solar drying. These pilots identified a set of challenges which include appropriateness of technologies and associated business and management models for sludge collection, transportation and treatment. Sanitation consumers behavior and awareness is also a big issue for construction of appropriate containment and the safe disposal of sludge. The top challenge is the capacity (technical, financial, regulation and partnership management with private sectors) constraints of the cities and municipalities to develop, maintain and improve FSM systems.

    Environmental hazard or organic fertilizer?

    Growing crops with dried faecal sludge fertiliserThe managing director of Faruk Fertiliser, an organic fertilizer business of 500 ton/year wants to see faecal sludge as an asset. He said the supply/distribution network of more than 20,000 dealers, wholesalers and retailers of fertilizer across the country is very organized but a key problem is that organic fertilizer is a very regulated product and there is a lack of awareness among farmers/land owners about its use. Farmers are more concerned with increasing production, than improving the texture of their soil.

    Different speakers mentioned the huge subsidy paid by the Government of Bangladesh for chemical fertiliser (both in in country production and imports) but gives hardly any support to organic fertilizers. A few NGOs are working on the transformation of organic solid waste and faecal sludge into organic fertilizer but the scale is too small to attract the participation of a private sector operator. Speakers also said that the Government could be a big buyer of organic fertilizer if they decided to make it 1% of their annual targets which will be around 400,000 tons. They also emphasized the participation of MFIs/Banks to support small holders farmers to promote the use of organic compost.

    Request for immediate attention of National Government

    Speakers requested the Government of Bangladesh to review and approve the National Institutional and Regulatory Framework and develop a National Plan of Action and set milestones/targets immediately along with the necessary operational guidelines and standards.

    The National Plan should adopt an inclusive approach with coordinated functional partnerships between government agencies, the private sector and civil society organisations.  It should advance research to explore innovative pro poor technologies, business models to address the whole service and the value chain of FSM, capturing evidence and sharing learning and knowledge for capacity building.

    Speakers also emphasized the extensive engagement of the media for awareness raising and changing behavior to stop the unauthorized disposal of sludge.

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  • Human Sludge: National Framework where to focus

    April 4th, 2015

    Bangladesh has achieved tremendous successes to achieve Open Defecation Free (ODF) status. The WHO/UNICEF-JMP, 2012 joint report says currently only 4% of the population openly defecate. The most important factors of this success were the development and implementation of a National Sanitation Strategy and WASH Sector Development Plan with shared coordinated and functional partnership of all State and Non State agencies including Government, Investor, Civil Society Organization, Research and Academic institutes.  Media and community lead approaches to design, deliver projects and programmes.

    However the environmental sustainability of this achievement is at stake because of promotion of single onsite sanitation technology, mostly pit latrines which now extremely require frequent de-sludging services. In the past large scale sanitation projects hardly considered the safe management aspects of human sludge. Very recently a few attempts have been initiated but there is a need to form an institutional and regulatory framework for coordinated development. The Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperative of Government of Bangladesh has recently formed a national committee to draft this framework which has already started the process. It recently organized a national consultation workshop and drafted guidelines for the facilitation of district/city/local level workshops.

    Clearing out faecal sludgeKey issues for a faecal sludge management (FSM) framework

    • Integrated and Coordinated Approach: Sustainable Sludge Management Systems need to consider whole service and value chains including containment for temporary storage, collection, transportation and treatment of sludge. The system need to consider stakeholders including utility company, municipalities, private sector, NGOs, research institutes, community organisations of service users and media. Different aspects i.e environmental, social, technical, financial and institutional are also very important. For this the framework should pay attention to integrated and inclusive approach.
    • Technology Choices:  Equipment, vehicles and civil infrastructures are required for the development of safe management of sludge. Currently a very select range of mechanical equipment (different versions of Vacutag) are manufactured locally but important accessories (i.e pumps/motors) are imported and support services are not locally available. Similarly, desludging trucks for transportation of sludge are mostly imported items and these need good investment which is beyond the affordability of the utility companies and cities. A wide range of treatment technologies are available to treat the sludge and produce gas, electricity, compost and others.
      We appeal to the committee to pay policy attention to the invention/patronization of local technology in consideration of local context which needs less energy, protects the environment and can generate green employment.
    • Pro poor business approach for protection of informal groups: Hundreds of pit emptiers are currently involved in the business of faecal sludge. When any users need this service, pit emptiers with their limited and traditional equipment and facilities provide this important service with a minimal service fee and lead their lives with this tiny income. The proposed FSM framework should design a pro poor business approach to protect and formalise the participation of these groups as formal private groups with city authorities and utility companies to deliver improved FSM services.
    • Concessional tariff for disadvantaged service users: FSM services are required for a wide range of users including individuals and institutional with different socio economic conditions. Emptying services are frequently needed for the urban poor who use shared/community/public toilets who can less afford to buy improved services. For this the proposed service tariff should take care of the concessional/discounted service fee for slum dwellers.
    • Standardization and quality control: The framework should strongly set the standard for containment, equipment for sludge collection and transportation and technologies for sludge treatment and should highlight the necessity of monitoring and supervision capacity of the State Agencies to ensure the standard for customers satisfaction and environmental sustainability.
    • Advance action research: The framework should keep space for continuous research and development by State Agencies and their Development partners  to explore appropriate technology packages, community participation, national awareness raising and market led business modelling.
    • Knowledge management: The framework should encourage the creation of new or strengthening of existing networks (i.e Sanitation Secretariat and/or National Forum for Water and Sanitation/Urban Knowledge Hub) for knowledge and learning exchanges from good practices and failures to build on.

    Last but not least, the framework should recommend the design of national action plans and guidelines for different contexts (mega cities with utility companies/WASA, big and small cities and small towns without WASA, urban/growth centers and rural areas) with milestones and a follow up mechanism to deliver faecal sludge management projects and programmes for the sustainable sanitation.

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  • Action needed in Bangladesh urban slums

    April 2nd, 2015

    Bangladesh has been facing the fastest urbanisation in South Asia. Currently, around 30% of 160 million people live in urban centers and contribute 60% of the GDP of our country. The Urban Authorities (11 city corporations and 324 municipalities) are responsible for providing a wide range of basic infrastructural (e.g. water supply, sanitation, waste management) and social services for a livable and healthy environment for all urban dwellers. Slum dwellers and low income communities (around 20-25% of total urban population), essential and important stakeholders who are contributing USD 5.5 billion annually to GDP), remain deprived and excluded from formal services. Slums are characterised by high population density, limited sanitation and hygiene facilities, poor housing, a very low socio-economic status for a majority of residents, a lack of security of tenure and poor governance. Where those services do exist, quality is low and costly to afford. Despite their significant contribution to the urban economy, unplanned growth leads to polluting environment and adverse impact on public health and poverty reduction.

    kitchen waste bicycle collectorMunicipalities in Bangladesh face financial constraints to provide services and are heavily (around 75%) dependent on national allocation which comes from different channels including an insignificant annual block grant (4,000,000 taka per municipality in FY2014-15) to each of the 324 municipalities and a special allocation (more than 200% of the Block Allocation) for selected municipalities by Local Government Division under the Ministry of Local Government Rural Development & Cooperatives) and national urban projects/programmes by different national departments such as the Local Government Engineering Department.

    Political choices and the influencing capacity of the mayor are always important issues to access this special allocation which is mostly used for the development of selected hardware (i.e. civil construction) mainly for influential people and there is little allocation for social and environmental development, poverty reduction and governance improvement. The current national allocation to different municipalities is not equitable, performance based or demand led, restricting the ability of municipalities to meet the needs of the poor and this is a policy issue that requires civil society engagement.

    A few national projects, such as urban governance and infrastructure improvement (UGIIP) managed by the Local Government Engineering Department and supported by a consortium of development banks and donors facilitated selected municipalities to develop the Pourashava Development Plan, where the Poverty Reduction and Governance Improvement Action Plan were important chapters and demonstrated performance-based demand-led and targeted allocation.

    These practices were highly appreciated by urban sector stakeholders and urban dwellers in project towns. This experience could be scaled up by the revenue but this is not happening although the Government has identified the key ingredient to realising the goal of sustainable urban development is good governance.  Policies (Draft Urban Sector Policy) and strategies (Vision 2021) and National Investment Plan (7th Five Year Plan 2015-20) focused on institutional reforms and decentralisation of responsibilities and resources to local governments; participation of civil society including women in the design, implementation and monitoring of local priorities; building capacity of all actors (institutions, groups and individuals).

    Time is running out to design and implement actions to catch up with the declarations and commitment

    Some donor-supported projects, such as UGIIP have demonstrated good practice with a few municipalities. They have shown that it is possible to allocate budgets in ways which actually benefit slum dwellers, through developing and funding Poverty Reduction Action Plans.  These practices should be scaled up across all municipalities, but this is not happening despite the good intentions of policies, strategies and the national investment plan.

    Now is the time to make these good intentions and nice words a reality for the protection of the interest for urban poor.

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  • Why Bangladesh needs a new framework to deal with faecal sludge management

    October 23rd, 2014
    Pilot sludge treatment plant in Faridpur

    Pilot sludge treatment plant in Faridpur

    Bangladesh is considered a success story with regard to its efforts towards universal access to adequate water and sanitation in accordance with Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 7. The Joint Monitoring Programme reports published by UNICEF and WHO states that Bangladesh progressed and achieved 97% open defecation free (ODF) and use of fixed place site sanitation facilities (pits and tanks).But the sustainability of this open defecation free (ODF) achievement  is at stake because of lack of facilities and services to deal the  management and safe disposal of sludge.

    The responsibility of the sanitation services in Bangladesh lies with a number of agencies, the Water Supply & Sewerage Authority (WASA) in 4 big cities, the Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE) and municipalities/cities in urban centers and rural areas.

    All of these agencies face constraints to deal growing faecal sludge management  problem – emptying, transportation and disposal. Dhaka’s WASA only has the facilities to treat the waste of 20% of the population in Dhaka city and others depend on municipalities and informal pit emptiers for emptying. The final destination of this collected and uncollected sludge from 98% of the population is the open environment which brings adverse impacts to public health.

    Sustainable faecal sludge management services is needed to take care of standards for containment, health and safety, appropriate technologies for collection, transportation and recycling of sludge, public private partnership protecting the participation of informal groups, pro poor business modelling, national awareness and capacity building.

    To achieve this Bangladesh urgently needs a coherent national regulatory framework , guidelines and action plans and a coordinated and integrated approach for effective and efficient implementation of these plans.

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