BANGLADESH: Selling the toilet idea

Friday, 14 October 2011 08:23 GMT

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BANGKOK, 14 October 2011 (IRIN) - By some measures, Bangladesh is modernizing rapidly - one in two residents now owns a cell phone. However, when it comes to basic sanitation, progress is clogged. While some point to obstacles of funding and a lack of political leadership, others say toilets, despite their long-established health benefits, have an image problem. �People don�t associate latrines with health,� said Azizur R. Mollar, who studied sanitation in Dhaka in 2010. �To many Bangladeshis, a toilet is just a concrete platform. Going to the toilet is a matter of practicality.� By comparison, he said, the mobile phone has become �a symbol of the betterment of lives� for Bangladeshis, the usage of which has skyrocketed in a decade. There were 79 million mobile phone users in 2011, up from just 279,000 in 2000, according to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission. [ ] The number of non-communal household toilets, meanwhile, has grown at a much slower rate, to the dismay of those working to achieve the water and sanitation (watsan) Millennium Development Goal - 70 percent sanitation coverage by 2015. The government set a goal for 100 percent coverage by 2010, but has postponed that to 2013. Total coverage is at 53 percent, leaving nearly half of the country�s 140 million people without proper sanitation, and exposed to diarrhoea and infectious diseases like cholera and dysentery, according to the Water Supply and Sanitation 2010 report [ ] by the World Health Organization and the UN Children�s Fund (UNICEF). The definition of �proper sanitation� rules out toilets shared by a community, and open defecation - methods millions of Bangladeshis still use today. A study released in August by Human Research Development Centre (HRDC) - supported by WaterAid, UNICEF and the government - showed a dismal national sanitation situation and a misuse of funding. The government began subsidizing sanitation projects in 2004 and has contributed US${esc.dollar}53 million since that time. Conversely, inadequate sanitation is costing the country ${esc.dollar}4.2 billion a year, according to a report released in October [ ] by the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP), a multi-donor partnership administered by the World Bank. A tough sell Sufficient funding and effective leadership are necessary to improve sanitation in Bangladesh, but smart marketing campaigns are needed, too, those working on the issue said. �Like cell phones, the latrine needs to be perceived as a cool and sexy commodity, something that people desire and want to talk about,� said Rose George, author of Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters. Comparing sanitation campaigns to the marketing of cell phones, Khairul Islam, country director of WaterAid [ ] (the world�s first international NGO dedicated to the provision of safe domestic water, sanitation and hygiene education), said: �Cell phones have been marketed aggressively. You see advertisements on billboards and TV every five minutes, but not even 1 percent of that money has been put into promoting sanitation� There is no specific national strategy on hygiene promotion.� Mollar suggested another reason for the difficulty encountered in drumming up interest in toilets is the absence of clear, immediate and tangible benefits. As a result, changing people�s perceptions and habits is a challenge both in Bangladesh, and globally. An estimated 40 percent of the world is living without access to toilets. �People aren�t very rational about sanitation,� said George, who has studied the history of human waste and toilets. �While the developed world has taken toilets for granted, there are people on the other side of the world who are happy to openly defecate and don�t protest about it.� sh/nb/cb � IRIN. All rights reserved. More humanitarian news and analysis: