Monday, June 1, 2015

Pissed off, or why I should never read comments on

Looks just like the "public bathrooms" of NYC, right? Photo credit: Gary White, Waterdotorg
Last week Tahnmina Ahman had an opinion piece in The New York Times about the lack of public toilets in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The piece begins with a warm and fuzzy anecdote about her mom texting her about how bad the traffic is from Gulshan to Banani (i.e. the poshest neighborhood in Dhaka to the 2nd poshest neighborhood in Dhaka), presumably in an air-conditioned car with a driver.  It goes on to talk about how common it is for men to pee in public, recent "innovative" campaigns that use signs in Arabic as a deterrent (and what's messed up about that), and the need for more comprehensive solutions.

A lot of the readers, presumably those sitting in New York, commented about the lack of public bathrooms in their own cities. It made me realize the lack of context that many had about the sanitation situation in Dhaka more generally. So here are a few fast facts:

It's a good day in Dhaka if I can avoid seeing anyone urinating in public.  Also a good day if I can avoid being assaulted by the smells of human waste--harder to do as it heats up.  It's gross.  But let's be honest, I've got pretty minor issues to complain about.  I've got clean bathrooms at home and at my workplace.

Many people don't have a toilet at home.  Dhaka is home to approximately 15 million people, with about 5 million living in slums or informal settlements.  Virtually none of them have a bathroom at home.  The city government believes that adding infrastructure would only accelerate urban growth, so infrastructure in slums is very limited.

Here's a comment from a (male) resident of Korail slum, "The problem is I have to share a single bathroom with 20 other people. And in the morning, it sometimes takes me at least 40 minutes to just get into the washroom..... sometimes I have no option but to defecate under open sky as the latrines are occupied most of the time.”

Trust me, if you saw the condition of some of these bathrooms, you'd be doing your business out on the street too.

Women can't work in places that don't have toilets.  There's been more attention recently to bathrooms as a big issue for girls and school attendance, especially once menstruation begins.  I wish there was more emphasis on the issue of public bathrooms as a prerequisite to increasing women's participation in the workforce.  If men have to resort to urinating on the streets, what option is there for women?

Ahman mentioned that the de facto public bathroom system is provided by mosques, and many mosques are for men only.  In fact, the bathrooms provided in many markets are more or less for men only--because there is only one and it's full of men.  It creates yet another significant difficulty for women looking to work in markets, bus stations, restaurants, small stores, etc.

Recently I had a conversation with a woman who is the full-time driver for a high-level executive. We were talking about dieting, and I was mentioning the importance of staying hydrated.  She just laughed and said that there are many days when she drinks as little as possible.  Many places where she goes, there is no bathroom available, so she has to monitor her water intake fairly carefully so that she can manage to wait until she's back at her boss's office building or home, where she's got access to safe and clean bathrooms.  If that's the life for a driver, what about for women working in construction sites, vending, and other jobs without regular access to bathrooms?
Want to guess on when this was last emptied?  Toilets like these
are common, and are likely to contaminate local sources of drinking water. Photo Credit: Gary White, Waterdotorg
Without toilets, waste becomes a big problem.  No one really likes talking about solid waste management--it's a gross topic.  But we're talking about a city where approximately one-third of people lack access to bathrooms connected to any type of sewer.  Latrines are similar to outhouses; most of them lack a water supply and have to be cleaned manually (a job reserved for the socially marginalized dalits).  To get around this, many of the latrines have been built over the many lakes and ponds that border slums built on reclaimed land.

So where does all that waste go?  You don't want to know!!  In the rainy season in particularly, diarrheal diseases are common. Children miss school, adults miss work. Obviously, those lacking safe sources of water suffer the most--and many of these families don't have the financial cushion to take days off (rickshaw drivers don't have paid leave).  Previous studies have estimated that the health consequences of poor sanitation cost Bangladesh almost $4 billion a year.

Dhaka needs more toilets, period.  Don't get distracted by the word "public".  We're not comparing the merits of the bathrooms in Central Park to the Starbucks down the street.

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