NGO to ADB: 'Go rural' on WASH in Bangladesh

Hanging latrines in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Donors like the Asian Development Bank need to fund more rural water and sanitation programs in the country. Photo by: Gary White / Water.org / CC BY-NC-SA

Bangladesh has significantly improved its sanitation record in the past two decades — but mainly in urban areas, while villages continue to be neglected.

At least 3 percent more people practice open defecation in rural areas than in cities in a country where hygiene is not high on the list of priorities of the majority of the population.

Donors like the Asian Development Bank however continue to fund urban WASH programs like a water supply and management project in Dhaka but to date none in rural areas, an ADB spokesperson confirmed to Devex.

This must change for efforts on WASH to succeed here, according to a local NGO. Devex reported last week that Bangladesh is one of the countries where ADB and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will soon partner up to seek innovative solutions on water and sanitation.

“ADB is a good partner of Bangladesh [but] they are not covering support in rural areas for now,” Alok Majumber, country coordinator of WASH Alliance, told Devex.

“They are focusing on water supply and sanitation in urban areas [so] it would be very nice if ADB [could] extend support in the rural areas,” he said.

Notable improvement

Just two decades ago, open defecation was pretty much the norm in most of Bangladesh.

But thanks to a wide range of programs carried out since by local and foreign NGOs, the country has has seen a significant improvement in WASH, even more important in a country with such high population growth and density and prone to flooding and other natural disasters.

Better sanitation and hygiene — until recently not a priority for many Bangladeshis — has become a catalyst for social and economic development, helping to reduce infant mortality and increasing life expectancy.

The government also realized this and in the last ten years has scaled up its efforts on WASH in a country where in the early the 1990s half of the population had no access to safe drinking water.

The result? Now only 4 percent of Bangladeshis still practice open defecation.

Challenges remain

Despite these achievements, Bangladesh’s sanitary situation is not all that rosy and perfect. There are still some issues that need to be addressed and where donors and iNGOs can play a central role.

First, habits are hard to break — it’s not easy to change people’s behaviour in rural areas and takes time for villagers to get used to good sanitary habits and hygiene.

“While we are providing education to the people, they listen to us. But, sometimes, habit comes in the way. It’s more of getting them used to the (sanitary and hygiene) practice,” explained Mujamber.

According to a report by the World Bank-funded Water and Sanitation Program in Bangladesh, more people are now attuned to adopting this sanitary practice, although socioeconomic standing and social acceptance of the practice is still in a gradual phase in some rural areas.

Second is how to dispose of the waste.

Majumber said lack of available land for available land for latrines and fecal disposal is proving to be a major problem.

“We are facing the problem of scarcity of land. People are not having spaces for the toilets on the ground. We are also having problems on having climate resilience technology in terms of sanitation (and fecal disposal),” he noted.

So what can donors and iNGOs do to help? Here are Majumber’s tips:

  • Extend assistance to aid workers and local volunteers in capacity-building trainings to help sustain the sanitation and hygiene practices being imparted. It takes continuous and vigorous effort to always remind people.

  • Improve coordination between foreign aid-funded and government programs on WASH.

  • Engage businesses and microfinance institutions to help in the financing of some sanitary facilities for people who do not have money to buy these.

Reporting by Lean Santos

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    Carlos Santamaria

    As associate editor for breaking news, Carlos Santamaria supervises Devex's Manila-based news team and the creation of our daily newsletter. Carlos joined Devex after a decade working for international wire services Reuters, AP, Xinhua, EFE and Philippine social news network Rappler in Madrid, Beijing, Manila, New York and Bangkok. During that time, he also covered natural disasters on the ground in Myanmar and Japan.