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Life In Dhaka’s Largest Slum

Alka Pande

Each day poses new threats and new questions for Jahan Ara, 33: Whether to eat food cooked beside the rolling sewage near her home or stay hungry and avoid disease? Whether to save money for a proper toilet or feed her children or send them to school? Her daily routine begins by gingerly walking over a narrow bamboo bridge to a ‘toilet’ that is perched precariously on stilts over a highly polluted lake. She cooks the family meals in her kitchen, which is barely five metres away from the toilet, and amongst all this filth, her kids manage to find some space to play in their free time.

Life in Korail slum of Dhaka, Bangladesh-Photo by Amar Guriro

Jahan Ara, who is six months pregnant, lives in a one-room shanty made of corrugated steel sheets in Dhaka’s largest slum located near the posh Gulshan Lake area of the Bangladeshi capital. Walking past the high-rise buildings, mega showrooms and sprawling homes that line both sides of the street in the heart of town, a sudden turn changes the scenario completely. The lanes become narrower and dirtier; instead of the concrete walls and glass windows are steel sheets with small holes cut out in them for windows.

The reality

This is the Korail slum, spread out over 90 acres of government land. According to Salina Bagom, Chairman of the Nogor Bostibashi Unnayan Songastha (Urban Slum Development Organisation), Korail came into existence about 25 years back and today has a population of 78,000. In the one-room, 100-200 sq. ft. dwellings, families with an average of five members, have created a life for themselves.

Unfortunately, the lived realities in these narrow lanes – no wider than three to five metres – are pathetic. For residents like Jahan Ara, spaces between lanes lined with steel sheets serve as bathing areas or kitchens. For her children, Shamim and Shahab, and their friends, these gullies double up as play areas, where they practice cricket regularly. And in these very narrow alleyways there are around 800 shops operating – be it a barber’s shop or a tailor’s, a general merchant or a medicine store. In fact, there’s also a dentist’s clinic, a community centre and a coaching centre here.

Nonetheless, when it comes to basic amenities, the 16,000 families of Korail are struggling. Not only are they grappling with severe sanitation and water problems, they don’t have any access to government-run health or educational institutions either. Says Abdul Mannan, a community leader, “The problem is that we are considered illegal residents and, therefore, we are not entitled to any government facilities like health, education, water, sanitation, and so on.”

Mannan is not wrong. A visit to Korail will reveal that it has just one government-run health centre, while there are no state schools at all. Of course, to fill in these service gaps, there are at least 30 formal and informal community-run schools functional in the slum as well as several local health ‘clinics’, though no one is sure of their authenticity. Obviously then, the health indicators are very poor here, with residents regularly suffering from debilitating ailments such as jaundice, skin infections and gastro-enteritis.

Dismal sanitation is the other big challenge in this area, one which especially affects the women and children. These days, a heavily pregnant Jahan Ara constantly fears slipping and falling off the narrow bamboo bridge on her way to the toilet, built after spending a precious BDT 1,000 (about US$ 13). In fact, more than 70 per cent of the slum dwellers, who do not have proper toilets, face similar insecurities.

Like their homes, the toilets-on-stilts, built over the Gulshan Lake, are steel sheets and bamboo structures. Fitted inside the small, one-square-metre space is a squat toilet fashioned with two heavy stones with a hole in the middle into which a four-inch plastic pipe is attached. The other end of this pipe opens into the lake.

Realising the urgent need for building proper toilets here, Salina Bagom, who has been working in Korail ever since the slum came into existence, and who acts as a bridge between the civil society organisations (CSOs) operating in the area and the local community, has facilitated the operation of a sanitation project, Advancing Sustainable Environmental Health, spearheaded by Dushtha Shasthya Kendra (DSK), a Bangladesh-based NGO, and supported by Water Aid, a UK-based charity organisation.

Under this project, 5,000 households are being targetted for toilet construction and hygiene promotion. The average cost of building a proper toilet comes to around BDT 10,000 (120 dollars) and the community is being motivated to contribute money to build one toilet among 10 households.

When Jahan Ara heard about this proposal, she eagerly volunteered to collect the funds. However, with only six families in her lane, it’s unlikely that her dream of a proper toilet will be fulfilled. “I am collecting money to get a proper toilet but do not know whether I will ever get one,” she wonders.

Jahan Ara’s husband, Abul Kalam, has a push cart and can manage to earn around BDT 5,000 a month. A major chunk of this money goes into buying medicines, because her children fall ill frequently. Whatever is left goes into buying food and water.

In Korail, residents have to buy drinking water, though they can ill afford it. Though there are plastic pipes with drinking water supply coming into the slum – incidentally, these have been laid in the filthy Gulshan Lake – this is not official. An arrangement has been worked out with private vendors, who have provided illegal water connections for which each family pays at least BDT 600 per month.

Says Kalam, “It is an irony that people living in well-to-do areas across the lake avail our services – we drive their cars, maintain their gardens and clean their houses – but none of them ever bother to think about us; of the dismal conditions in which we are leading our life.”

When it comes to basic amenities, the 16,000 families of Korail slum of Dhaka, Bangladesh are struggling for basic facilities like drinking water and sanitation-Photo by Amar Guriro

Life of dignity

Community leader Mannan also feels that such severe neglect on the part of government authorities can only mean that they may be thinking of getting the slum site vacated. However, he has a proposal in mind. “We are demanding that the government make multi-storey buildings on at least 20 acres of land where we all can live properly,” he says. And for this, the slum dwellers have filed a petition for a stay order in the court. Unfortunately, Mannan’s prediction has come true – recently, more than 2,000 shanties in Korail, and adjoining areas, were razed to the ground in an eviction drive carried out at only a few hours’ notice, rendering thousands homeless.

Jahan Ara has the final word: “Just because we are poor it does not mean that we do not deserve a life of dignity. We also need potable water and proper toilets. Even my children deserve a decent education and something as basic as a playground.”


Race Against Hunger: ‘Highlight clean water, sanitation at London meet’

Sun, Aug 12th, 2012

Dhaka– International development organisations have called upon the UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Brazil’s Vice President Michel Temer to acknowledge safe water, toilet and soap ‘vital’ for tackling child malnutrition at Sunday’s London Hunger Summit.

Water Supply and Sanitation and Collaborative Council (WSSCC), End Water Poverty (EWP) and WASH Advocates made the call in a letter welcoming the Summit being hosted to cash in on the global attention on the handover of the Olympics by London to Rio.

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is in London to attend the Summit.

According to the WSSCC website, the letter urged the leaders to acknowledge and address the ‘crucial and devastating’ impact of lack of clean water, sanitation and hygiene in the way of overcoming child malnutrition.

“Please keep in mind the simple fact that children who suffer from diarrhoea or are infected with worms are not getting the goodness they need from the food they eat,” the letter read.

The World Health Organisation estimates that repeated bouts of diarrhoea and nematode infections cause up to 50 percent of childhood under-nutrition in the world where thousands of children are dying every day because of lack of clean water, safe toilets and hygiene.

“Making sure that children have access to a clean toilet, that they have clean water to drink, and that they wash their hands with soap can make a massive difference to the almost one in three of the world’s poorest children currently unable to reach their full potential due to malnutrition,” it said.

“Why put more calories into hungry young bodies if those calories are squandered by preventable waterborne diarrheal disease?” asked John Oldfield, CEO at WASH Advocates.

“It is estimated that on any given day, patients with diseases related to water and sanitation fill half of the hospital beds in the developing world. This is solvable.”

Amanda Marlin, Acting Executive Director at WSSCC said, “It is really quite simple: we can’t afford to waste the food we’ve got.”

Sarah Blakemore, International Coordinator for End Water Poverty, said improvements to sanitation also offered great value for money.

“A pound invested in better toilets can yield a return of around £5.50 in terms of improved productivity and reduced health care costs.”

The letter also noted that there was already increased political attention being paid to environmental causes of poor health.

It referred to the Sanitation and Water for All High Level Meeting in Washington in April 2012 where ministerial delegations from almost 40 developing countries and major donors pledged to improve water, sanitation and hygiene situation by 2015.

According to Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey, 36 percent under-5 children are underweight, 41 percent stunted and 16 percent too thin for their height.

Water safety alertness going in Bangladesh’s textbooks

Fri, Jul 13th, 2012 5:12 pm BdST

Nurul Islam Hasib
Dhaka—The government plans to raise awareness on water safety using textbooks in primary students to prevent infectious diseases that experts say can cause malnutrition.

Zuena Aziz, Additional Secretary at the Ministry of LGRD, said from the next year the back cover of the science book of class III, IV and V would be printed with pictorial messages on water safety.

“We have requested the Ministry of Education, they told us they will do it from the next year,” she said at a workshop on developing action plan for ‘improving hand washing behaviour linked to child feeding’ on Thursday.

Experts say many of the diarrhoea and respiratory infections of children under 2 years of age in Bangladesh are preventable if mothers and caregivers wash their hands with soap before feeding babies homemade food after six months of age.

But research suggests scanty knowledge about the link between hand washing and infectious diseases. An Alive & Thrive and ICDDR,B joint research showed over 80 percent mothers of under-2 children do not believe washing hands with soap before food preparation and feeding the child can check diarrhoea.

It also found almost none knew the link between respiratory infections –cough, cold, pneumonia – and hand washing.

Dr Khairul Islam, Country Director, Wateraid Bangladesh, told that infections stunted children’s growth with severe burden of malnutrition despite progresses in different health indicators.

He said there were systems to follow from water collection to drinking to avoid contamination.

For instance, he said water might be contaminated even after it was safe at the source point ‘if the pot or pitcher is dirty.’

“Even after maintaining all measures water can be contaminated during serving, if proper attention is not given.”

He spoke of restaurants where waiter usually serves at least five glasses of water at a time dipping each finger in each glass.

“There are five points of water safety protocol,” he said, “from collection, transportation, storage, serving, to drinking.”

As Wateraid works closely with the Ministry of LGRD, the Country Director said the pictorial messages on the back of textbooks would focus on those five points.

According to Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey, 36 percent children under-5 are underweight, 41 percent stunted and 16 percent wasted or too thin for their height.

The National Nutrition Services is developing the action plan with the help of Alive and Thrive to ensure hand washing before child feeding.  Bangladesh

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