Bangladesh has achieved remarkable success in reducing open defecation to 1% through the special drives of the government and development partners, with active engagement of local government institutions, and communities over this decade. Despite these achievements, our struggle for sanitation will not come to an end. People mostly rely on on-site sanitation which generates a mix of solid and liquid human wastes generally termed “faecal sludge.” Due to sanitation movement in Bangladesh, thousands of latrines have been constructed without thinking of the faecal sludge management generated in the pits or septic tanks. Now, this problem has been aggravated, eventually emerging as a second-generation sanitation problem.
People in general are not aware about the disposal of sludge and how it is impacting the surrounding environment. About 80,000 tons of faecal sludge is generated every day in our country, of which only 1% is being treated.
The environment is getting polluted by faecal sludge through this vicious cycle every day.
Less than one-fourth of Dhaka city is under the coverage of sewerage network. In areas with no sewerage network, more than half of the buildings don’t have any septic tanks and the sewer pipelines are directly connected either to the open drain or to the storm drainage system, polluting the surface water and environment.
A huge number of pit latrines exist in rural areas, and in low income communities of all urban towns. Due to rapid expansion of low-cost latrines, pits are filling quickly and require frequent emptying. Even septic tanks (without connected to sewerage network) require emptying at longer intervals.
Unfortunately, no proper system exists for managing faecal sludge, including emptying mechanisms from pits or septic tanks. In most cases, this is done manually by sweepers. They dilute the substances with water mixed with kerosene and dump it manually to the nearby open drain.
Mechanical suction devices for emptying, Vacutug, is very limited. Vacutug disposes the faecal waste into sewer or nearby landfill site. In very few cases, pit is dug to bury the sludge. For both the cases, the faecal sludge pollutes the shallow aquifer and environment at large.
Recently, Department of Public Health Engineering, and many international/national NGOs, and research organisations have shown interest in faecal sludge management.
However, most of their initiatives are confined with construction of plants for converting waste into compost. In most cases, production of compost seems their ultimate goal without thinking of marketing and proper use of it.
We need to think from a different perspective to resolve this problem -- a holistic approach is needed linking between sanitation and agricultural sectors. Bangladesh uses around 3.5 million tons of fertiliser every year of which about 2.6 million tons is imported.
Government provides subsidy of around 18 taka/kg of fertilisers to the farmers. Hypothetically if we could convert the entire amount of sludge produced in the country to proper soil conditioner/organic fertiliser, it will turn out to be 3 million ton, which will be more than the amount we import every year.
Even if we could utilise a certain percentage of this potential, it would be a huge gain for the country.
We have to think about designing a proper municipal sanitation service value chain from collection till treatment. We also need to strengthen the product value chain for ensuring proper marketing and usage of the compost.
While doing so, we need to simplify the typical licensing process for an organic fertiliser/compost as its first initiative.
Farmers often apply excessive amount of chemical fertilisers to produce more.
Organic contents in soil strata hold the water, nutrients within it and facilitates plants to absorb the same. Excessive use of chemical fertilizers reduces soil fertility by destroying the soil texture.
The organic content in soil is reducing at an alarming rate in Bangladesh and now has come down to less than 2%. We could take the advantage of increasing organic contents by adding up compost from faecal sludge and ensure better soil health and increase soil fertility in the long run.
The time has come to promote conjunctive use of compost from faecal sludge through policy advocacy for improving soil health and environment.