Absorbing failure and learning from it is not always easy. Building on failure is even more challenging and requires great strength of character. This Practical Action story has remained untold for a decade because looking at failure positively is not something we typically do.
I’m taking this opportunity of sharing our faecal sludge management (FSM) journey – a story of how failure made us rethink a problem and develop a more ingenious solution that put addressing people’s fears and concerns at the centre. It took failure to make us see this. But from this small pilot project that failed, big transformational change is happening.
Open defecation in Bangladesh has rapidly reduced over a decade and a half. A sanitation movement took place in Bangladesh where national Government and local Government Institutes, I/NGOs, the private sector and most importantly communities, participated with joint ownership. This social mobilisation resulted in the installation of millions of toilets, reducing open defecation. But we didn’t think much about faecal waste management. This resulted in another development challenge. Hence, the second generation sanitation problem evolved as ‘faecal sludge management’.
In Bangladesh around 24 metric tons of faecal waste is generated every day in urban areas where two types of sanitation system exist. One is the ‘off-site’ system – a conventional sewerage network with a treatment facility. There is only one such system in Bangladesh situated in the outskirts of Dhaka city, in Pagla, which covers roughly a quarter of Dhaka city. The rest of Dhaka city and the urban areas of the entire country have on-site systems. These mostly consist of septic tanks with or without soak wells and pits connected to individual or community managed toilets. With the exception of a few municipalities, there are no treatment facilities. This poses a threat because of the increasing volume of faecal waste. Only around 7% of the total faecal waste is treated at Pagla treatment plant and the small number of FSM plants established very recently in a few municipalities.
Usually septic tanks/pits are emptied manually using buckets and ropes. This is discharged into a nearby open drain manually in an unhygienic and primitive way. Sadly, in many cases the outlets of the septic tanks or toilets are connected to nearby public drains or storm sewers and remain out of sight as an invisible problem. This is a much less discussed issue and people often do not know where their sludge is going and the impact it has. The occasional spell of consciousness strikes when this invisible problem becomes visible by creating nuisance due to overflowing septic tanks.
The first FSM plant in Faridpur
Practical Action had long been active in the sanitation sector and was concerned about the potential threats of environmental pollution and public hazard of faecal sludge. To address the issue, Practical Action piloted the first ever FSM plant at Faridpur in Bangladesh back in 2008.
When it started operation, it was soon realised that the elevation was too high and it was too difficult to lift the sludge. To correct that technical glitch an approach road with a ramp was planned to make the operation easier. We continued to monitor the performance of the plant.
Sadly, Practical Action had to shut down this plant not due to any technical fault but because of protests from the community. People were under the impression that the place would smell bad and that the value of their land, property and rent would depreciate due to the placement of such a plant. The issue reached such heights that it went as far as the then Minister and the plant had to be shut down within 7 days of operation.
Participatory approach is key
We realised that our site selection was not done with proper consultation with the community. We really didn’t try to understand the socio-political implications of this plant and the concerns of the people. We did not make adequate effort for local and political buy-in as we had underestimated the significance of community engagement.
In our professional life, in many cases, we often design projects considering the ideal scenario. Often people’s views, needs, expectations even emotions are ignored. We tend to go to them with prescribed solutions assuming ‘our thoughts’ are ‘their thoughts’ or even superior. We remain more accountable to ‘donors’ than ‘communities’ who should be the central attention of our work.
Faridpur gets its FSM plant
Learning from this failure, our subsequent approach became more participatory, inclusive and engaging. Eventually, after negotiations with the municipality, the Mayor of Faridpur was kind enough to allocate another tiny piece of land. But by the time we acquired the new land, the project period was almost over and the money had been depleted. With the remaining money, more research was initiated to sustain our FSM initiative in a consortium with WaterAid. Practical Action regained its strength after a successful demonstration of FSM. Then following a global bidding process, we won a project with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) to provide city-wide FSM services to the citizens of Faridpur.
It is nine years since the construction of the first plant and Practical Action has now successfully established a large scale FSM plant in the same city- Faridpur. The new plant started operation in 2017 offering citywide services. Practical Action gave the utmost importance to the citizens and rolled out a city wide communication campaign to convince all segments of the local population. It ensured adequate political buy-in and local engagement where citizens and authorities were brought under the same platform to make them mutually accountable.
Don’t underestimate the strength of the community
So this is what we learned from our failure: the strength of community is enormous, and that community is the key. If the planning is not done with proper community engagement, no intervention can be sustainable. Political will is essentially very important. Without political and local buy-in working in municipalities is not sustainable. The failure which remained as a monument, in reality added a star in our learning curve, giving us the strength not to give up but to build on failure.
We need to accept that in our work failures may come and albeit not-so-desirable, we should harness their hidden benefits.