Rural sanitation

Dawn Newspaper

THE ancient civilisation of Moenjodaro was famous, among other things, for its covered drains. Over 5,000 years later in villages surrounding the ruins and hamlets further beyond, sewage spills over broken open drainage lines and seeps onto roads and into homes and shops.

According to Water Aid, over 93 million people, or half of Pakistan’s population, don’t have access to adequate sanitation. Each year, over 40,000 children die of diarrhoea caused by poor sanitation and unsafe water.

Settlements across rural Sindh bear testament to these dreary statistics: most homes have little more than a hole dug in the ground that functions as a toilet. The waste passes directly into an open drain running in the lane outside that leads to a bigger drain and eventually ends in an open pond; a breeding ground for mosquitoes and disease.

Normally, there’s no government or community intervention in sight. The government appoints sweepers at the local level who draw salaries going into several thousand rupees a month paid from taxpayers’ money. Many give a portion of their salaries to their supervisor as a bribe for permission not to show up for duty. This scourge goes up the chain all the way to the top. Communities are no less apathetic. At best people clean the area just outside their home and ignore the clogged and overflowing sewerage lines that create filth all around them.

People must take charge at the community level.

The province’s planning, budgeting and execution in the area of sanitation hasn’t produced results. Even in cases where government contracts for repair of drains are given, the engineering work is so faulty that the system falls to disrepair. How can we tackle this problem? At the community level, people will need to take charge; recognising that the government’s failure is damaging their children’s future and ignoring the problem won’t lead to a solution.

For a start, communities must organise themselves at the village level. People representing all the neighbourhoods should select a panel of youngsters willing to take on the task of cleaning up their village.

To create awareness, the panel could begin by holding a monthly community clean-up day. Schoolchildren, teenagers and shopkeepers can all be motivated to take part, selecting a main street or area to sweep as a start. During the clean-up, skits and corner talks can be held to raise awareness about the impact of cleanliness and proper sanitation on health. This will encourage communities to stop trashing their streets and blocking their drains with candy wrappers, medicine jars etc. They will also learn the importance of building a simple, affordable toilet at home.

Then, communities can begin work to dry up large open ponds where children often play and get sick. They can partner with either the government — which can be cumbersome, or impossible for the ordinary villager — or perhaps more easily with an NGO or sponsor to build a wastewater treatment plant. This is a simple model designed by the Orangi Pilot Project which operates based on gravity rather than expensive fuels and filters sewerage water, treats it with a simple home-made effluent and then transports it into an irrigation canal to be recycled for fruit and vegetable farming.

Then, the clean-up panel should begin making regular visits to local government offices to demand locally appointed sweepers be ordered to attend to their duties. Normally, the sweepers only appear when a secretary or other officer issues a direct order. One way to mitigate this is to create a formidable people force. If a motivated panel makes daily visits to the local government office, presents their case and offers to supervise the sweepers, some result is bound to show.

Once sweepers begin to regularly clean the drains and ensure blo­ckages are removed, any slack they can’t pick up can be taken up by privately hired sweepers who receive a salary from community contributions. Once villagers begin to see the results, they will be motivated to go forward. Then contributions can be gathered from members of the village and combined with a government or NGO effort to put in underground pipes and create a proper drainage system.

The government is responsible for providing sanitation. Given its failure, the communities affected must stand up and take ownership of their villages. They can become a force to push the government to make some contribution for which people will hold them accountable. People will also take more interest to maintain cleanliness if they have a direct stake and have made contributions towards the effort. If Moenjodaro’s people could create far-sighted, efficient sanitation systems, thousands of years and inventions later, we should be able to do at least as much if not better.

The writer is a journalist and founder of the Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust.

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