Next week sees an important gathering of practitioners, government representatives, funders and others focusing Faecal Sludge Management. From lowly beginnings in Durban in 2011, the growing numbers of people gathered at this two-yearly conference demonstrate an increasing recognition of the importance of this issue – supported by the SDG commitment to achieve ‘safely managed’ sanitation for all.
Of course, ensuring people have access even to a basic toilet is still the crucial starting point in some places – including in the slum communities in Africa and Asia which are the focus of our work. The number of urban dwellers without even basic sanitation in sub-Saharan Africa rose between 2010 and 2015 from 177m to 215m (according to JMP figures).
However, once levels of sanitation coverage begin to rise, particularly in urban areas, properly tackling the issues of how the contents of pit latrines and septic tanks can be safely cleared, transported and treated (the faecal sludge management – FSM chain) becomes ever more important.
While tackling FSM has been recognized as important, there is still huge debate about how best it should be delivered. Many see enterprise opportunities for companies, small and large. Some take the route of helping companies to enter this business, especially if they have been involved in similar business lines perhaps in refuse collection (SWEEP in Bangladesh). Others see opportunities for youth employment in new business models for example with container-based services (Ghana’s Clean Team).
A new study Practical Action has carried out in 3 secondary towns and one city corporation in Bangladesh reminds us again of the extent to which it is the informal sector which is already delivering these services. It also shines a spotlight on the extremely difficult working conditions they face.
The study carried out in Gazipur, Faridpur, Bagerhat and Barguna interviewed 6 pit emptiers as well as 38 people working in solid waste management as part of the ‘Dignifying Lives’ project.
- Many combined this work with other informal jobs such as being employed as street sweepers by the municipality, or working as rickshaw pullers or day labourers.
- They may only empty pits 3-4 times per month as customer demand is fairly limited, although compared to other sources of income it is relatively well paid, charging around BDT 1,000-1,500 for emptying a small pit, while a daily labourer may only earn BDT 100 per day.
- This work in Bangladesh is tied to particular communities and has been passed down for generations. Although levels of social acceptance for this work have improved, the harijan community as a whole is still treated as ‘untouchable’ to some extent.
- Although they may have been provided with safety equipment, it was rarely used. Gloves, boots and masks were found to be too hot and impaired their movement, making the job harder.
- The work is often hazardous. Workers had suffered broken bones, cuts in their hands and feet and stomach problems, losing 4-5 days of work a month as a result.
- They are usually poorly represented in discussions with decision-makers. Neither do they have access to social safety nets to support them if they fall ill or are injured.
At the same time, we found in earlier work in Faridpur, 72% of households and 52% of institutions preferred to use the informal service providers, largely because they could do the job more quickly with less bureaucracy than the service offered by the municipality. For slum dwellers, the municipal service was not available because the trucks could not get close enough to their toilets.
In our work in both Bangladesh and Kenya we are developing models and approaches for bringing these informal workers into the mainstream. We are interested in the extent of the service which can be provided by these entrepreneurs at the citywide level. If additional capacity is needed to meet service provision needs citywide, then who and how can additional capacity be brought in while not undermining opportunities for those who already rely on it for their livelihoods.
We are also working on approaches through which their working conditions and access to social protection can be improved – and one solution is through forming co-operatives, and bringing those together into a nationwide network. That network in Bangladesh (the FSM Network) will be represented at the FSM5 conference. Come and find out more at their stand.
I’ll be at the FSM5 conference, and looking to share experiences with others in the sector who are approaching the problem in similar ways. My focus will remain firmly on how the proposed systems meet the needs of poor communities and protect the interests of existing informal sector workers. Do follow me on Twitter @lucykstevens for updates.