Education Resource

Steve Sapienza on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in Bangaldesh

News and documentary producer Steve Sapienza introduces the water and sanitation reporting project called "Dhaka's Challenge: A Megacity Struggles with Water, Sanitation and Hygiene."


Hi, I'm Steve Sapienza I'm a freelance news and documentary producer. I'm currently in Bangladesh and I'm here on a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. I'm looking at water sanitation and hygiene challenges here in Bangladesh, and in particular here in Dhaka.

Bangladesh is considered one of the more densely populated countries on earth. And here in the capital Dhaka, it is a very crowded city; it's very noisy, very exciting, [and] very vibrant. And it's also growing very quickly at a very fast rate. Many people are moving into the city; some four hundred thousand new residents every year from rural areas moving into the city. And a lot of them end up in slum areas, which you can see over my shoulder here in the background.

And there's a lot of pressure put on this city, in terms of the social, environmental and health concerns. And already the city is facing a lot of challenges that that megacities face in developing countries all over the world: really, really bad traffic; they've got problems with infrastructure, in terms of, you know the roads; and power, there are a lot of power outages here.

The sanitation situation here is really severe; almost two-thirds of the city has no access to the city sewer lines. So that means the sewage is removed from pit latrines from septic tanks and it's actually deposited here and there and left to really seep into the ground. Or the water that you can see exists all around Dhaka, and this poses a severe health hazard. Not only that, a lot of the water, surface water, actually goes back into the water system here in Dhaka. It's treated, but it has the potential to add more disease and problems to the local water supply.

So this reporting project will look at the water sanitation and hygiene issues here in Dhaka and around Bangladesh, and to really focus in on a lot of simple, safe solutions that are happening here to really change people's lives. These are solutions that can happen at very low costs, but have huge impacts on the everyday lives of urban, poor and the overall health of the city in general.

Reporting from Bangladesh is a challenge. There are many different types of ways that make it difficult to get a story done here. I can speak directly to problems here in Dhaka.

First of all, it's very, very crowded. This being one of the most densely populated countries on earth, there are insane traffic jams. Traffic jams like I've never seen before. Sometimes just a simple trip across town could take three to four hours, and when you're on a tight schedule that can really, really mess up your day.

Another issue is noise. There's always a lot of noise going on so if you're trying to get, you know, a good interview or good sound for video. Or perhaps if you're a radio reporter for radio reporting, there's just an enormous amount of noise all the time, everywhere you go.

Another thing that is problematic a lot of times is, it has to work the crowds, again the number of people. Sometimes we will set up a camera, and a lot of people will crowd around, including [sic], they'll walk right into the shot. Or, they'll just come walk right up and just stare right into the camera. And you know it's pretty funny when it happens. But it slows down your progress in what you're trying to get done.

Also there are a lot of power blackouts. So you have to make sure you have a good source of energy to power up your light and your camera batteries. That's another challenge.

And I think maybe one last challenge that happens at this particular time of year, which is Ramadan. You often have to work around the different prayer times during the day and also take breaks for the different for the Iftar in the evening when they break fast.

So you have to respect the local culture, and you have to work within the scheduled time that this country is running on during Ramadan.

So this is my third trip to Bangladesh, and my impressions of Bangladesh have changed since I first came here. You know, my overall impression is that this is a country facing so many, many, many difficult challenges. I mean you've got extreme poverty, you have climate change issues that are impacting this country, you have disease, there's corruption. There's a lot of really, really heavy problems that are impacting Bangladesh.

But I've been really impressed with how this country and its people take on these challenges. Unfortunately many, many years ago this country was tagged as an international basket case. And it's still a very, very young, growing democratic country, and you feel that there are a lot of people here who are trying very hard to make things, and succeeding in making strides towards improving their country. And that is what I've seen here. And I think, you know, the overall impression I'll have coming away from this story is that there a lot of dedicated hardworking people who are finding very simple, safe, effective solutions to water and sanitation problems here in Bangladesh that are going to help this country move forward, and also could be exported to the rest of the world and help other countries with their sanitation and water access issues.