This story originally appeared in the September 2011 edition of the Searchlight South Asia newsletter created by Intellecap for the Rockefeller Foundation.

By Carlin Carr

Bangladesh’s capital city of Dhaka exhibits South Asia’s rapid urbanization in its most frenzied state. With over 14 million residents and more than one million commuters to the city every day, Dhaka is said to be the fastest growing city in the world. The trend is expected to continue: estimates predict that by 2025, the city’s population could swell to 20 million—that’s larger than Mexico City, Beijing or Shanghai. Concerns over this growth abound. About 32% of the population in Dhaka is considered poor, with about the same percentage living in slums. As the city is estimated to grow, most new migrants will likely move to these informal settlements.

The municipality, Dhaka City Corporation (DCC), has begun to strategize and implement programs to expand an urban system unprepared to absorb the massive migration. One of these initiatives is the city’s public toilet program. In 2005, the Bangladeshi government launched the National Sanitation Strategy, which declared “Sanitation for All” originally by 2010, but that date was later revised to 2013. Under this directive, the strategy clearly identified roles and responsibilities, mainly that the municipalities would install and set-up public toilets, then would lease them out to the private sector for maintenance. In theory, this type of public-private partnership has the potential to work to everyone’s benefit: relieved of the day-to-day responsibility of public toilet upkeep, the DCC is free to work on new programs to meet the needs of its citizens and to continue installing new toilets to keep up with the growing demand. On the other side, the private sector benefits from the pay-per-use system, and because of the reporting structure—individual operator to the city’s government—the public would ideally have access to clean and well-maintained facilities.

A recent study, however, reveals that the program has done little to impact the sanitation situation in Dhaka, and in fact, has brought into question the program’s entire strategy.

The Situation

More than five million people in Dhaka lack access to a public toilet. The economic and public health impact is enormous: poor sanitation costs Bangladesh over Tk 295 billion (US$3.88 billion) a year—mostly attributed to healthcare costs—which amounts to 6.3% of the Bangladesh’s total GDP. For the people in need of sanitation facilities in Dhaka, just 47 public toilets are operating with open access, revealed the study by the Center for Urban Studies, Dhaka, and WaterAid Bangladesh. That means that one-third of the city’s population is forced to defecate in public, along roadsides, alleyways, railroad tracks or riverbanks. A separate report estimates that about 5.5 million urban poor workers, such as rickshaw drivers, are outdoors in the city for an average of five to eight hours a day. During this period, they would likely not have access to a public toilet; and if they did, its state would likely be in disarray. “There is no scientific estimate available about the number of public toilets that may be required in the city to serve this huge population. Yet, one can infer that the current number of public toilet is grossly inadequate. So, although the sanitation strategy puts emphasis on the provision of public toilets in adequate numbers, it practically has no implication,” reports the Daily Star.

The city originally had 69 public toilets constructed, though two were demolished because their location was said to be blocking foot traffic. Out of the remaining 67 toilets, incredibly, only five (less than 10%) are fully operational with a urinal, washing and toilets functioning at a basic minimum. Often what was found was that most facilities were only partially operating with regular maintenance nearly non-existent. Shockingly, many facilities—nearly 70%– were being used by the local operators to wash cars, sell water, sleep, or as small shops. Only 43% of toilets have regular water supply, and just 20% of toilets have functional lighting facilities. The program has been skewed in favor of the private lease holder, and as theDaily Star article reports there is a “serious gap” between the sanitation policy and program. Despite these violations of their contracts, the private operators have never faced any consequences or actions against them, further exemplifying the municipality’s complete lack of oversight.

Poor Economics

While the private overseers gain their lease on the public toilets through a competitive bidding process, it would seem that the vetting would also analyze the operator’s abilities and dedication to serving the public good. Yet, in this case, the lease holders were focused mostly on profit maximization, and the DCC neglected its duty to ensure the public had access to the promised program. And the result has been costly for the government, not to mention a complete disservice to the people of Dhaka. Only the lease holders seem to be benefiting from the government’s investment. The DCC receives about Tk 200,000 (US$2,700) annually from each of the public toilets; however, the private lease holders earn nearly Tk 800,000 (US$10,800)—307% more than what they invested. The report claims that the majority of this revenue is from the other activities happening on the toilet block premises.

The other portion of the private lease holders’ income is the pay-per-use system, where users are charged a fee to avail of the latrine. The financial agreement between Dhaka’s municipality and the private operators is that the users should pay between Tk 0.5 (US$0.0067) to Tk 2 (US$0.03). In reality, the poor are paying nearly 20% more for services than they should be. The study found that the operators are charging between Tk 2(US$0.03) to Tk 10 (US$0.15), depending on the services. While critics contend that the pay-for-use system itself is flawed—prohibiting the poor by virtue of any cost when they will likely choose a free outdoor area—other well-functioning systems around South Asia have proven the opposite. NGOs such as Sulabhin India charge for use of their toilet block services—making concessions for cost based on income—and these models have proven both a financial and social success. Prices are posted publicly so that no underhanded inflation can take place. Funds are used to pay an operator who oversees the facilities’ maintenance and cleanliness.

In addition to mismanagement of the pricing and profits, the entire allocation of funds for sanitation has been less than necessary. A study of 21,121 households in Bangladesh by the Human Development Research Centre with the support of WaterAid, UNICEF and the Ministry of Local Government Division, has shown that the government allocated Tk 4 billion (US$5352.6 million) over the period from 2004-2010 for 42 separate sanitation projects. A municipality like Dhaka receives approximately Tk 292,000 (US$3,840) per year in sanitation subsidies. Outdated subsidies per latrine Tk 520 (US$7.10) are estimated to be 1/3 below the market price. Government investment in the sanitation sector is needed to steer the sanitation program in the right direction.

Can PPPs Work with Sanitation?

Yet, given the state of affairs with Dhaka’s public toilets, the entire policy agenda is under scrutiny now. The public-private partnership has become a much-touted solution to some of development’s most pressing issues. However, the failure of the PPP between the Dhaka City Corporation and the private companies has revealed necessary administrative infrastructure in the system for PPPs to work. Foremost is a DCC-promoted monitoring and supervisory body to ensure that allocated funds to the facility operators are following the terms of the agreement. While this seems basic in nature, it is obvious that lack of oversight has devastated the existing sanitation program and has left any expansion to meet the 2013 goals in a tenuous state.

Conclusion: Bangladesh 2013

Failed sanitation has ripple effects far beyond broken down toilets. It is a public health issue and embarrassment to the highest degree. The poor—who are nearly uniformly the most affected—are subjected to yet another social humiliation. Women, perhaps even more than men, suffer under this failing system. A BRAC-sponsored video released last week suggests that girls in Bangladesh often drop out of school because of bathroom facilities that are either shared with boys or, at times, non-existent. The dropout rate goes up when girls begin menstruating. Therefore, sanitation policy must consider that widely available public toilets will improve the overall health of the city by reducing widespread disease caused by defecating in open areas, but it will also likely increase attendance at school, improve the working conditions of the urban poor who are out in the city throughout the day and provide one of the most fundamental services to daily human needs.

To reach the government’s goal of “Sanitation for All” in less than two years, rapid increase in funding alongside a revamping of the current system will be essential. The DCC’s sanitation agenda also needs to be progressive and forward-thinking and account for a growth trend. Annual expansion and construction will need to meet a potential for the population to increase by nearly 50% in the next 14 years. Looking at the needs and locations of this expanding poor population should drive the placement of new facilities and services. As it stands, existing toilets are not often in appropriate and accessible places for the urban poor who need them. The acquisition of land in such a densely populated city will potentially cause issues as the DCC moves forward. Appropriate planning, investment and cross-city and sector partnerships are necessary to create a PPP model that can be replicated to tackle other needs across Dhaka city in the near future.

The opinions expressed on the Searchlight South Asia site are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Rockefeller Foundation.


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