Selling the toilet idea

By some measures, Bangladesh is modernizing rapidly - one in two residents now owns a cell phone. However, when it comes to basic sanitation, progress is clogged.

While some point to obstacles of funding and a lack of political leadership, others say toilets, despite their long-established health benefits, have an image problem.

“People don’t associate latrines with health,” said Azizur R. Mollar, who studied sanitation in Dhaka in 2010. “To many Bangladeshis, a toilet is just a concrete platform. Going to the toilet is a matter of practicality.”

By comparison, he said, the mobile phone has become “a symbol of the betterment of lives” for Bangladeshis, the usage of which has skyrocketed in a decade. There were 79 million mobile phone users in 2011, up from just 279,000 in 2000, according to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission.

The number of non-communal household toilets, meanwhile, has grown at a much slower rate, to the dismay of those working to achieve the water and sanitation (watsan) Millennium Development Goal - 70 percent sanitation coverage by 2015. The government set a goal for 100 percent coverage by 2010, but has postponed that to 2013.

Total coverage is at 53 percent, leaving nearly half of the country’s 140 million people without proper sanitation, and exposed to diarrhoea and infectious diseases like cholera and dysentery, according to the Water Supply and Sanitation 2010 report by the World Health Organization and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The definition of “proper sanitation” rules out toilets shared by a community, and open defecation - methods millions of Bangladeshis still use today.

A study released in August by Human Research Development Centre (HRDC) - supported by WaterAid, UNICEF and the government - showed a dismal national sanitation situation and a misuse of funding. The government began subsidizing sanitation projects in 2004 and has contributed US$53 million since that time.

Conversely, inadequate sanitation is costing the country $4.2 billion a year, according to a report released in October by the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP), a multi-donor partnership administered by the World Bank.

A tough sell

Sufficient funding and effective leadership are necessary to improve sanitation in Bangladesh, but smart marketing campaigns are needed, too, those working on the issue said.

“Like cell phones, the latrine needs to be perceived as a cool and sexy commodity, something that people desire and want to talk about,” said Rose George, author of Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.

Comparing sanitation campaigns to the marketing of cell phones, Khairul Islam, country director of WaterAid (the world’s first international NGO dedicated to the provision of safe domestic water, sanitation and hygiene education), said: “Cell phones have been marketed aggressively. You see advertisements on billboards and TV every five minutes, but not even 1 percent of that money has been put into promoting sanitation… There is no specific national strategy on hygiene promotion.”

Mollar suggested another reason for the difficulty encountered in drumming up interest in toilets is the absence of clear, immediate and tangible benefits.

As a result, changing people’s perceptions and habits is a challenge both in Bangladesh, and globally. An estimated 40 percent of the world is living without access to toilets.

“People aren’t very rational about sanitation,” said George, who has studied the history of human waste and toilets. “While the developed world has taken toilets for granted, there are people on the other side of the world who are happy to openly defecate and don’t protest about it.”