In Bangladesh, did groups build emergency latrines for Rohingya refugees — or for donors?

Men work by hand to build new two-chamber latrines in Zone CC of Kutupalong Extension Site in Bangladesh. Photo by: Kelli Rogers / Devex

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — Overused toilets line the steep embankments of Kutupalong refugee camp. Sagging bamboo and tarpaulin emergency latrines balance precariously near steep drop-offs; others sit dangerously near water sources. Some have been damaged, their skinny skeletons exposing the concrete rings of a pit partially buried and unsealed, while others are already taped off completely due to waste overflow.

The shallow pit latrines many refugees are using can fill up in as little as one week, several Rohingya who built their shelters in the sprawling, scorching maze of the world’s largest refugee camp told Devex.

After that, the toilets stand unused — until perhaps another group arrives to build several new latrines, according to a refugee named Kamal, who has lived in Kutupalong for 12 years and who led Devex to a particularly problematic area of overflowing latrines in an area of the camp known as Lambbasia.

Throughout Cox’s Bazar — a seaside district once known more as a Bangladeshi vacation destination than as the home of the world’s most persecuted minority — the scale of the water, hygiene, and sanitation challenges is massive and growing. It balloons along with the population of Rohingya who have fled across the border from a violent Myanmar military clearance operation since August. That figure has already surpassed 600,000, on top of the more than 200,000 Rohingya refugees already living in Bangladesh.

Every day, men, women, and children continue to arrive, tired, malnourished, and devastated. They need safe drinking water and sanitary toilets, but neither of these basic services are guaranteed for a gap of nearly 600,000, according to the latest WASH sector situation report on Cox’s Bazar. The overall target for the WASH sector now stands at more than 1 million people.

More than 26,000 temporary emergency latrines have been built so far — but “there are concerns regarding the quality, durability and the geographic distribution of the infrastructure,” according to the report.

During a large-scale refugee crisis, an initial overuse of a limited number of latrines can be expected in the emergency response phase. But in this case, concerns can be traced to the fact that some groups have relied on a limited number of local contractors without providing sufficient technical oversight, several actors on the ground told Devex. In a push to meet the needs of a suddenly overwhelming number of refugees, other groups parachuted in, built shoddy standalone latrines in areas with relative “easy” access — structures that served as a very physical example of their presence and funds — and then left.

“For any kind of emergency, there will be so many nontraditional actors, private foundations, private donors — those who are providing their assistance by emotion, not by logic,” said Abu Naim Shafiullah Talukder, WASH program manager and sector coordinator at Action Contre la Faim, or Action Against Hunger. “For example, if there is a private bank coming here to install 100 tube wells … they will build and they will leave. That’s a common phenomenon. In our scenario, this is happening.”

Prior to the influx of refugees that began in late August, there were five organizations working on WASH in the camps. Previously in Kutupalong makeshift camp and Balukhali makeshift camp — which have now merged to become one mega camp — Action Contre la Faim and International Organization for Migration split the WASH services in order to ensure the maintenance of all the points, according to Hildegarde Thyberghien, deputy country director for ACF, which leads WASH cluster coordination.

Water and sanitation groups are currently working to decommission or reassign for maintenance full or overflowing toilets. Photo by: Kelli Rogers / Devex

Now, there are 44 WASH actors, a jump in numbers that makes coordination as big of a challenge as providing sustainable potable water and sanitation options for 1 million people.

The intentions of nontraditional donors or groups that haven’t exercised strong construction oversight may have been to help, but latrines uphill from water points in particular put the Rohingya population in danger of serious waterborne illness — particularly cholera. Contaminated water also causes many in the camps to suffer from chronic diarrhea and skin diseases, which was apparent to Devex when speaking with refugees in line at a clinic in Kutupalong. Many guardians pointed to the scabs and irritation on children’s bodies and arms.

Meanwhile, broken or overflowing latrines — as many as 36 percent of constructed latrines were about to get full, according to a Nov. 5 WASH sector report — take up valuable space that could potentially be used for other services. Many organizations have continued to dig shallow tube wells, which are cheaper and quicker to construct at less than 300 feet, but these will likely need to be converted into deep tube wells in order to provide safer drinking water. Very few groups have been chlorinating the wells after construction to protect against fecal contamination — a practice that should be standard, according to ACF’s Thyberghien.

Among aid groups active on the ground now, BRAC’s name has come up as one of the guilty parties of too-quick construction, having already built more than 11,000 latrines. But BRAC, an international development organization based in Bangladesh, “maintained the sphere standard guidelines strictly,” according to Iffat Nawaz, the head of BRAC’s communications team on the ground, referencing appropriate and adequate toilet facility guidelines.

“A number of latrines that were installed by actors who may have left the ground after the early onset have become unusable, and have been mis-accounted to BRAC,” Nawaz said.

Nawaz credits the “high volume of humanitarian actors on the ground as well as poor coordination in the early stages of the onset” for the fact that many latrines and wells were installed between BRAC’s established tube well points, leading to eventual contamination problems in BRAC’s own water points.

BRAC employed a team of auditors, who visited each of the organization’s WASH facilities and conducted thorough inspections to ensure the latrines and tube wells were safe for usage and ensured closing of any possible facility that could pose health threats for the community, she added. 

This fact-finding mission is ongoing through the cluster — with reports coming almost every week on the state of facilities throughout the sprawling Kutupalong extension site, as well as farther south in Leda and Nayapara makeshift camps.

Still, the result on the ground is a large number of latrines and wells that were built without properly surveying the area, which then received little to no maintenance following their construction — an issue that poses ongoing health problems and adds to service gaps now.

“If we install a hand pump, it requires daily maintenance,” ACF’s Talukder said. “If we install a latrine, it requires daily maintenance. A door can be broken, a roof can be broken. The holding tanks can be filled up in 7-20 days based on volume. If there is no regular maintenance, it’s going to overflow.”

Ideally, WASH committees should be appointed by zone to maintain the wells and latrines installed there, while also involving the local community using the services daily to help keep them clean and functioning. This coordination is already underway, according to Nawaz.

And although it is the WASH sector coordinator’s job to establish guidelines, it is not within their purview to tell other groups what to do. This can lead to the frustration of witnessing groups installing latrines or wells and bailing on upkeep, but being able to do little about it: They “can’t instruct, as the cluster lead. Theoretically they have no authority, no controlling mechanism. They are a support role,” Talukder said.

As for taking shortcuts on construction by employing unreliable contractors without providing sufficient technical oversight, for example, Talukder believes that NGOs, at the least, end up answering to these practices eventually.

“If we look at all the NGOs, how they get funds from all the big donors — USAID, SIDA, ECHO, EU … they are doing their own monitoring visits,” he said. “They are roaming around to see the technical aspects. So the NGOs need to present what they did with the money. The donors can see [the quality].”

Now, as the sector sheds its emergency phase surge programming and moves into efforts to improve services, many latrines will be decommissioned or reassigned to groups currently active on the ground for maintenance, and there will be a focus on constructing block latrines with permanent bases. Already, BRAC has broken ground on new, double chamber latrines that allow one chamber to fill and be desludged, or cleaned, while waste is directed to the other. Several Rohingya refugees in the surrounding area will be tasked with keeping the latrines clean on a daily basis, and a BRAC team will circle back to remove waste from chambers when it’s time. BRAC teams are already desludging 50 to 60 latrines a day, Nawaz said.

In Cox’s Bazar, aid groups may only have a few days to prepare a new site before resettling thousands of refugees there. View story.

Aside from too few access points to some of the farthest refugee settlement zones — where the task of maintenance will be monumental until more access roads are built — the current unavailability for fecal sludge management options tops the list of challenges for WASH actors on the ground to address overflowing latrines. Sector partners are now in talks with the Bangladesh government to identify a solid waste management system and a space for the construction of a large-scale fecal sludge treatment center.

There is also a sector-wide call for the construction of deep tube wells, rather than shallow ones.

In the meantime, women including 25-year-old Umma Kulsum walk 15 minutes two or three times a day to fetch water to drink, to cook with, and to use to bathe their children. The path is steep and the water, she said, is making them all sick. Her children have been suffering from diarrhea for days.

Several groups have come to measure a clearing near the well. Nothing has come of it yet, but “I hope they’re measuring to build a shower,” she said. Right now, she and several other women take turns holding tarps around each other, then wash with the same water that makes them sick to drink.

Read more Devex coverage of the Rohingya refugee crisis

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.