Fighting Poverty One Toilet at a Time

By James Abernethy, Strategic Partnerships Volunteer, BRAC

Fighting Poverty One Toilet at a Time
A floating latrine at Chamakpur Haati, Bangladesh.
Poverty is defined in many ways, but ultimately it remains a complex social problem. It has resulted in 2.5 billion people or one in three of the world’s population being left without access to adequate sanitation. Although safe water and sanitation forms just a single facet of this wide reaching problem, it is an integral feature of our everyday lives. In the developed world it is something we rarely stop to ponder the significance of. The World Health Organisation states that a single U.S. Dollar allocated to Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) equates to a saving of $4.3 in health care costs and this illustrates the sheer impact of activities like bathing or drinking clean water.
At BRAC, the world’s largest NGO, we have delivered WASH solutions to 66 million people in Bangladesh since 2006. BRAC was born in Bangladesh, a country that has experienced exceptional advances in health and sanitation despite having one of the lowest expenditures on health in the region. It is a paradox, much of the population live in poverty, while it has the highest life expectancy and the lowest child mortality rate (under five) in South Asia (except Sri Lanka). Our experience has led us through a process of refining solutions, which often involves a combination of interventions to eradicate poverty. Iteration is needed, or if you will development of development, as we work towards achieving our part in the Sustainable Development Goals. The French phrase ‘système D’ and ‘jugaad’ in Urdu neatly summarise the value we place upon innovation and the manner with which BRAC adapts and responds to challenges.
Innovating our way to large-scale solutions
By remaining dynamic and using education to catalyse behavioural change, BRAC has been able contribute towards positive strides forward in Bangladesh. Hygiene has formed the backbone of our WASH programme, which has provided millions with access to running water and a hygienic latrine near their homes. As a direct consequence of these interventions, open defecation in Bangladesh has reduced from 43% to 3% (2003 to 2013) while India still struggles with a rate of 48%.
Take a problem like providing safe drinking water. Drilling wells may be an initial solution but we found that they needed to be adapted on a district-by-district basis. High salt levels were found in coastal water sources and dangerous arsenic levels elsewhere. Thus, our WASH solutions evolved in response to challenges. In doing so, we have provided deeper tube wells to bypass the bacteria and arsenic present in shallow areas, sand filtration technology, rain water harvesting equipment, water quality testing procedures and we have formed water management committees. We are working towards ensuring even the most rural communities can access clean water while building resilience to new obstacles like climate change and the lowering water table.
Clearly innovation is a key component of this problem solving approach that is complimented by our research driven culture. We work in partnership with the IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre to provide unique solutions, like floating latrines. In challenging Bangladeshi wetlands families experience extreme flash floods and have difficulty managing sludge waste, which are exacerbated by the growing impact of climate change. Ultimately, we pilot low-cost, pertinent interventions at village level and refine them until they have been proven to alleviate poverty. Then we scale them up. Prominent individuals are identified and village WASH committees act as agents of change. Through cluster meetings and household visits they work with the community and schools to ensure they have the facilities they need.
Creating WASH businesses
But BRAC does not stop there. Looking towards sustainability in our projects, we have learnt that all too often market-based approaches are an effective part of the solution to complex problems and WASH has proven to be no exception. Aside from providing microloans to repair or build WASH facilities, BRAC has been involved in the creation of micro financed WASH start-ups or sanitation entrepreneurs, who provide affordable WASH solutions such as low cost hardware. These entrepreneurs provide important sanitation benefits to their communities and beyond. BRAC supports entrepreneurs to develop their business models, helps market their products and provides interest-free loans. What these initiatives lack in grandeur they make up for with impact, which is why BRAC is scaling up this particular business based formula.
Beyond Bangladesh
We have been doing successful WASH interventions for ten years across Bangladesh, which are gradually spreading into more urban areas. Yet, as we assess the global WASH situation in light of the Millennium Development Goals, we see a world in which 80 per cent of South Sudan does not have access to a toilet, nearly 750 million people can’t drink safe water and a further 2.5 billion don’t have a toilet; we want to reach out beyond Bangladesh. There remains much to be done and given BRAC’s business approach, expertise and ability to scale, it is well placed to start applying those skills internationally.

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