This post is the first in a series of dispatches on water and sanitation in Bangladesh from Steve Sapienza and Pulitzer Center executive director Jon Sawyer. The reporting precedes their participation in the World Water Week conference to be held in Stockholm from September 5-11, 2010.
The water and sanitation sector in Bangladesh is growing, but it is still struggling to keep up with the demand posed by Dhaka's rapidly exploding population. With only one third of the population connected to the city's main sewers, the rest has no choice but to rely on pit latrines and septic tanks. The problem is most acute in Dhaka's slum areas, where residents often have pit latrine toilets (if they can afford one).
The job of removing sh%# from pit latrines usually falls on the shoulders of people known as "sweepers." The sweeper has the highly unenviable yet vitally important job of manually removing the sh%# from the pits. Even when pit latrines are cleared by sweepers, there is no guarantee the human waste sludge will be properly disposed of at a treatment plant. Often the waste ends up expediently tossed here and there, ultimately seeping into the ground or surface waters and posing a serious health and environmental threat.
Enter the Vacutug, a super sewage sucker that dares to go where city sewage workers won't. This morning, I visited a slum in the Mirpur area of the city with the three person Vacutug crew to see the pump in action. From what I saw, Vacutug operates exactly as advertised: It safely and efficiently slurps the human sludge from the latrines. The Vacutug system was introduced to Bangladesh by a local NGO known as Dushtha Shasthya Kendra (DSK) to demonstrate new ways to combat the sanitation crisis here. DSK operates two Vacutugs, nicknamed 'mother' and 'baby,' which can hold 2000 liters and 500 liters of sh%# respectively. Each Vacutug sports a powerful suction pump, a long, wide gauge flexible plastic hose, and a large holding tank on a wheeled trailer. When the Vacutugs reach capacity, they are hauled off to Dhaka's sewage treatment plant where their noxious load is safely and hygienically dumped. The real value of the Vacutugs is the impact they have on the lives of the slum dwellers they serve; the latrine area I visited was not the terrible health, environmental and hygiene hazard that it so often is in other slums. The machines also deliver welcome relief and dignity to the residents of this Mirpur slum who have enough worries already trying to exist on less than $2 per day. If only there were enough Vacutugs to handle the demand generated by Dhaka's estimated 3.5 million slum dwellers and an overwhelmed sanitation system.