breathing playing

Not a Dirty Word

In articles, social care on May 2, 2010 at 10:00 am

2.4 billion people have no access to safe sanitation. 6000 children will be killed today by diseases which are easily preventable. Most at risk are those living in urban squatter settlements – last on the list of political priorities. It is a tragedy that has been called “the silent emergency”. These people are dying because they have no access to safe water and sanitation – both a cause and a consequence of poverty.

Their plight now has the attention of the international community who are pressing for a sanitation goal to be adopted this year by the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. Their aim: to reduce by half the number of people with no access to sanitation by 2015.

Earth Report goes to India, Sao Paulo, Karachi and Manila to report on cheap community-operated schemes that offer new hope.

Polluted People

In traditional Indian society scavengers or bhangis clean human excreta from the dry latrines of people’s homes. For centuries, the scavengers, or night soil porters, have been shunned by society as polluted people. Labelled “untouchables”, those born into this caste were forbidden to touch other members of society. They were destined to spend their life at the lowest rung of India’s highly complex social structure. The concept of untouchability is illegal, but for many thousands of scavengers across India, there is still little alternative but to continue the dirty work. The night soil porters perform a necessary task for society, yet they are trapped in a cycle of poverty and social exclusion.

A Vision of Toilets

The answer to many scavengers’ prayers lies in the Sulabh Sanitation Movement – India’s largest NGO employing 55,000 people. Sulabh provides communities with clean toilets and washing facilities and, having removed the demand for night soil porters, provides training for the children by giving them new skills to help them find alternative employment.

The Sulabh movement was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, who was the first to bring attention to the scavengers’ plight. Sulabh International’s founder, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, joined with the Gandhian Movement for the Liberation of Scavengers. The first step was to remove the demand for cleaning dry latrines and to provide appropriate sanitation measures. His research made him highly critical of the large scale sewerage systems imported from the West: they are costly in construction and maintenance, and they require a lot of water to flush, water which India doesn’t have. So Dr. Pathak and Sulabh International designed an alternative toilet which better fits India’s requirements. It has two pits, of which one is used at a time, while the other is kept on standby. When it is full, its contents can be used as manure. This means scavengers will not be required.

This low cost on-site sanitation system has been central to the success of the Sulabh public toilet complexes where toilets, showers and clothes-washing facilities are provided. While men must pay, women and children go free. Toilets in slum areas cost very little, whereas those in railway stations, bus stands and markets cost more. The Sulabh toilets provide more dignified employment for many scavengers, and the money raised by the users goes towards training facilities and English language schooling for slum children. Running alongside the Sulabh toilets are Sulabh health centres which provide health care and run educational training programmes, especially for women.

Public education is seen by many as one key to reducing disease and the Sulabh Movement celebrates the toilet in its bid to prove that sanitation is not a dirty word. A poll in Time magazine voted the toilet the most important invention of the century. The Sulabh International Museum of Toilets is the only museum of its kind in the world

A Sea of Sewage

The biggest sanitation problems occur in rapidly growing megacities such as Manila, capital of the Philippines. Of the 12 million people who live there, an estimated 4 million have no basic sanitation. Most severely at risk are those living in the squatter settlements that have sprung up on the edge of Manila bay. Without their own land and housing, families are less likely to try to invest in the future, and sanitation becomes neglected. Also, there is little prospect of government investment in a proper sanitation system. The slum-dwellers live surrounded by a sea of sewage: their own waste drains directly into the water but they also receive the rest of Manila’s raw sewage and industrial waste which flows down the Pasig river and into the bay.

Say it with Soap

Dr. Angelo Ramos is coordinating a pilot project for a UN initiative – Water and Sanitation for Health (WASH) in Manila. Improving the conditions of the children is the first target. Without adequate facilities and with toxic chemicals flowing into the water, children can contract a number of diseases like diarrhoea, respiratory and skin illnesses.

WASH promotes hygiene through soapmaking: trained teachers show women how to make soap, with the hope that this will lead to a greater emphasis on hygiene within the womens’ families. The simple act of washing hands with soap and water can reduce diarrhoeal rates by 35%.

While the Philippine government is preoccupied with political issues like insurgency in the south, the people in the slums remain without a political voice.

Danger: Children at Play

Sao Paulo, home to 16 million people, half of whom live in favelas, squatter settlements on the outskirts of the city. The population has doubled in the last 20 years, putting the city’s natural water resources under pressure. Untreated sewage, rubbish and pollution are contaminating the Pinheiros river and the water supplies for the entire city – affecting both rich and poor.

For those living in the favelas, dealing with the hazards of raw sewage and open sewers is an everyday reality: The water is infected and there are rats, and dengue-carrying mosquitoes. Most at risk are the children playing around the open sewers.

Big Ant to the Rescue

The favelas have little or no infrastructure. But in Monte Azul, the community has managed to put pressure on the authorities to help them help themselves: A man nicknamed Big Ant because of his tireless efforts in improving the local area has persuaded the authorities to commit money for construction materials while the community provides the labour. The streets no longer dissolve into mud whenever it rains. Big Ant and his team have managed to put drains into 75% of the homes, but the problem now is that all the domestic sewage still runs into the open sewer which flows right through the middle of Monte Azul. Big Ant and the other residents are determined to build a proper canal, cover it and treat the water. Again they are willing to contribute labour if the authorities provide the money for the materials.

Grassroots Sanitation Grid: The Orangi Pilor Project

Experience in Karachi, Pakistan has proved that driving forces from the grassroots can motivate governments into supporting low cost community initiatives. Over 60% of Karachi’s population lives in katchi abadis or squatter settlements. Orangi is one such settlement, home to 1 million people and boasting clean streets. 20 years ago things were very different, with drains overflowing, the dirty and clean water mixing together and children contracting illnesses. The lack of services gave rise to a highly active informal sector which, together with thousands of community based organisations, has taken on responsibility for much of Karachi’s infrastructure.

Most influential of all is the Orangi Pilot Project: a self-funded, self-administered grassroots movement which relies on the resources and skills of the urban poor. Using local materials and labour they have built hundreds of kilometers of extremely low cost underground sewers. They work lane by lane, persuading households to invest. Simple design means that the constructions could be built and maintained locally. The cost of installing a toilet and laying or renovating a sewage pipe was about 31 US dollars per household – one seventh of the price of those laid by the Karachi Municipal Corporation. More than 92,000 families are now connected to this self-financed sanitation grid.

Water: A Question of Life and Death

The Third World Water Forum is taking place in Kyoto, Japan in March 2003. In December 2001 government ministers and water experts from all over the world met in Bonn, Germany to discuss water and sanitation in the run-up to the conference next year. Sanitation, traditionally the poor relation of water supply, is slowly climbing higher up the policy agenda. As the global water organisations debate how to finance sanitation improvements in the developing world, there is increasing interest from the private sector. It is hoped that following talks in Johannesburg, the Third World Water Forum can also build on the growing concensus that sanitation must be central to the sustainable development of the rapidly growing megacities.

Unless more action is taken, 2.1 million will have been killed by lack of access to clean water and basic sanitation this time next year.

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