My article for SouthAsia Magazine:
Access to clean, drinkable water makes the difference between life and death in the sewage-infested slums of Bangladesh.
AS THE SUN rises over the narrow streets, a cacophony of sound heralds the new day. Armies of workers in small factories are busy making everything from salt to bricks and balloons. Yet one glance at their weary faces and ragged clothes makes it clear that no one here earns much money.
Welcome to Kamrangirchar, Dhaka’s largest slum – a grimy product of the mass urban migration that has transformed Bangladesh’s capital into the world’s fastest growing city. Here, over 400,000 people live within a space of just three-square kilometres. Once a dumping ground for the city’s waste, its ramshackle huts and sewage-infested streets are home to dwellers who constitute between a quarter and a third of Dhaka’s population.
While poverty and food crises are typical of developing nations, the extremity of squalor in the slums is beyond belief. Images of starving children are cliché but the psychological impact of malnutrition on children is less visible. Few realise how stunted children become when they go through life hungry, devoid of the necessities for growth and advancement. “A child’s world can be influenced by a plethora of aspects that shape his or her physical, cognitive, social and emotional development and maturation,” says Professor Varuni Ganepola, a psychologist at the Department of Social Sciences, Asian University for Women, Chittagong. “Children can suffer a loss of self-esteem and develop a poor self concept. Loss and depravation can affect the way he or she develops a sense of who they are in the way that they relate to their social world,” Ganepola says. Academics and policymakers alike have concluded that given adequate opportunities, the children of the slums could be a great asset to Bangladesh. However, they become liabilities faced with bleak futures when deprived of the basic human rights of food, education and healthcare.
In the slums, even giving a child a glass of water requires an act of faith. Far too many mothers have seen their young children taken away from them by diarrhea, dysentery and other water-borne diseases. Water lies at the heart of the complex web of problems facing residents. Slums spring up overnight, usually on landfills owned by no one. Since there is no owner of record, Dhaka’s municipal water company refuses to lay down pipes – leaving millions of slum dwellers without recourse to the city’s water supply. Enter the black marketers. Found in almost every slum, these middlemen provide, for a price, water illegally procured from the municipal supply. The quality of their water, however, is another matter entirely. Leaky hoses, held together by duct tape and spit, snake their way through ditches filled with raw sewage. Tests have shown the presence of E. coli, a potentially deadly bacterium. The middlemen freely admit that people get sick from the water, “We can’t help it because the water is contaminated with sewage.”
For adults with greater immunity, tainted water is not necessarily fatal. Young children, though, with weak immune systems ravaged by malnutrition can die within a matter of hours – the result of extreme dehydration and loss of electrolytes.
Occasionally, the state will undertake clearance drives, ostensibly to reduce crime rates. But these evictions deprive slum dwellers of homes and jobs and, ironically, may make them more susceptible to participation in criminal activities. Dr Rita Afsar of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) has conducted surveys, which show that 80% of criminals active in the city reside in middle-class areas, enjoying political backing from both incumbents and the opposition. She agrees that some squatters are involved in drug trafficking and prostitution, but says that most are honest labourers who have contributed to the growth rates of major sections of the urban economy – construction, transport and small businesses.
There is some cause for hope. In some slums, residents have banded together with NGOs to demand their right to safe, clean potable water. Dr. Diablok Singha lobbied Dhaka’s water authority to provide water links to slum dwellers. Though reluctant at first, they accepted on the condition that the NGO assumed the risk of non-payment of water bills. Dr. Singha agreed. “A win-win situation occurred”, he says. The mastaans, local slum barons who specialize in ripping off the poor, charge 15 times more than municipal authorities for water. Dr. Singha knew that the residents would happily accept cheaper, cleaner water. Only the mastaans lose out. Thanks to this ingenious project, many more connections have been established.
However, every week thousands more arrive at the gates of the city. Treating merely the symptoms will not affect a cure. For Bangladesh, the answer lies in providing better services and job opportunities in rural areas to stem the tide of urban migration. Adequate housing facilities and the provision of affordable healthcare and education is exactly what is needed to transform the county’s greatest liability into its greatest asset.