The coastal region of southwest Bangladesh floods easily and water levels can remain high for months. Daily life becomes a struggle as paths disappear and floods damage freshwater ponds and shallow wells. Toilets become unusable and overflow, contaminating water sources with faeces. People are forced to buy drinking water or collect polluted water from rivers or ponds, and some even migrate because they cannot find safe water. In these conditions it’s no surprise that diarrhoeal disease puts many children’s lives at risk.
In Satkhira district a local NGO called Uttaran promotes the construction and use of sanitary toilets, safe water and better hygiene. Since 2011 it has facilitated more than 105,000 people in poor communities to improve their health.
One of the principal tools used by Uttaran are raised ‘step toilets’ that prevent floodwater entering the pit, while the toilet’s non-porous lining prevents faeces leaking out and contaminating nearby water. So far, Uttaran has constructed 10 step toilets and many families have built or repaired their own. In this way more than 2,000 people have gained access to a hygienic toilet that can survive floods. Uttaran has also constructed five deep (75 metre) wells that provide more than 2,500 people with safe water.
These new facilities are vital in providing access to sanitation and safe water, but cannot ensure better health on their own. Therefore, Uttaran also works with the community on raising awareness about good hygienic behaviour. To track progress in these areas, community volunteers in five selected villages visit sixty neighbours each month to ask where they collect drinking water. The volunteers examine the condition of the toilet, check that all household members use it and ask about hand washing. At monthly village group meetings community members discuss their concerns and raise their own suggestions about improving water, sanitation and hygiene in the village.
Uttaran also conducts weekly sessions on good hygiene behaviour in twenty schools in the Satkhira district where students learn about washing hands after defecating and before eating, and share what they have learnt with families and neighbours. Student volunteers interview ten boys and girls in five selected schools each month to find out what they think about the toilets and the state of hygiene in their school. The data provided by the community and school volunteers gives Uttaran a valuable, accurate and up to date picture of access to safe water, clean toilets and hygiene practices in Satkhira’s villages and schools.
Sustaining success with action-research for learning
The Dutch WASH Alliance’s Action-Research for Learning project helps NGOs learn from what they are doing and sustain success after the end of an intervention. In Southwest Bangladesh, Uttaran used it to gain insights into how they improve hygiene behaviour. Before the project none of the households in the selected villages had hand-washing facilities near the toilet. Now, most families have created a place to wash their hands with soap after using the toilet. Many families have constructed or repaired toilets and far fewer people now defecate in the open. Communities are regularly updated on the benefits of safe water, of using a toilet and of practising good hygiene – and information collected by community volunteers shows that most toilets are in good condition and clear of faeces.
The number of families using clean drinking water is increasing and outbreaks of diarrhoea have reduced in all the villages where data is collected. There are also environmental benefits as household rubbish is now disposed of at designated points.
Looking forward to the future
Involving community members and students in collecting information has given Uttaran’s staff a better understanding of the effects of their work. After the end of the Action-Research for Learning projects, community and student volunteers will continue to collect information on hygiene, sanitation and water in their communities in Satkhira to help Uttaran sustain its efforts to improve people’s health.