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Sounds and smells wash over me as I set foot in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Cars are honking almost non-stop, people are shouting to be heard over the noise of the traffic, and dust slowly settles in the hot afternoon air. Full of anticipation I soak up my surroundings, anxious to get to the office, meet my colleagues and learn more about our work.

From 3 to 16 December, I was in Bangladesh to visit our offices in Dhaka and Khulna, along with our project sites in Khulna, Kushtia and Jhenaidah. With the team, we worked on our faecal sludge management (FSM) project: ‘Demonstration of Pro-poor Market-based Solutions for Faecal Sludge Management in Urban Centres of Southern Bangladesh’.

My arrival was just before a 2-day conference organised by the FSM Network in Bangladesh, a common and collective platform for sector actors to generate ideas, share views, and influence policy and practice to meet the challenges of the WASH sector. We, as SNV, were in the lead for 7 December – the first national convention for septic tank and pit emptiers. Yes, that’s right – the people who clean up poop. Perhaps not a fancy or attractive topic, but a very necessary one. Because what actually happens after our toilet visits?

Frankly, without the emptiers: nothing much. Sludge will largely pile up in septic tanks or pits, and if not retrieved, transported and treated properly, the surrounding ground and drinking water will become contaminated, leading to various diseases. In cities facing rapid urban growth, we already see this happening. There may be toilets and septic tanks or pits, but there are no appropriate processes in place to deal with the increase in sludge that naturally comes with an increase in population. At the moment, sludge is often collected manually by emptiers – exposing them to a myriad of dangers, including severe illnesses and even death. But they do not get recognition for their work, and in fact, as a group they often face social stigmatisation.

To address this issue, the team organised the event on the 7th, a day all for and about them – where the emptiers could voice their opinions and give recommendations during a discussion with government bodies and other NGOs. Sitting in the audience, and hearing the emotional appeal from the emptiers (I do not speak Bangla, but emotion does not need words), was really impactful. They have never really been given the opportunity to speak up, and you could see them feel empowered with a room full of people listening to them.

The second day of the conference, organised together with BUET, WaterAid, Practical Action and WSUP, focused on finding the way forward in terms of policy making, technology and commercialisation, in order to scale up FSM in municipality and town planning. Because when we talk about sanitation infrastructure, many people immediately think about large and costly sewage systems. But that is not realistic, perhaps never but certainly not at this point in time. So what to do with poo? That is what SNV's senior advisor Rajeev Munankami and his team are working on, focusing their efforts on closing the loop to make sure that there are effective and efficient processes in place to deal with emptying, transportation, treatment, disposal, and where possible, re-use of sludge (e.g. agricultural fertilizer or biogas generation). With regards to the manual emptiers, for example, the team has worked on establishing Occupational Health & Safety Standards to improve their working conditions.

After the conference, we went to Khulna, Kushtia and Jhenaidah - talking to the manual emptiers living in so-called sweeper colonies about their experiences. People with very little means, but ready to give you their hopes and dreams, along with some strong black tea (which I argue to be almost coffee, as it is REALLY strong) and biscuits. While we interviewed them, some broke down while talking about social exclusion (no access to education and better jobs, or not being allowed to eat in a restaurant), accidents and deaths in their family. All directly related to their line of work. I had difficulty keeping my own emotions in check as I really sympathised with them, but at the same time felt utterly useless. Luckily, I am part of an organisation that focuses on improving the livelihoods of others, and I found comfort in knowing that Rajeev and his team are addressing these emptiers’ issues.  

All in all, my visit was a great and humbling experience, leaving me with mixed feelings. Grateful for our wonderful team in Bangladesh, frustrated and sad to see people struggling in life simply because they were born into a specific environment, but also still hopeful as I always am. That we as people are the ones who can make change happen, in whatever way, shape or form.