Technology that can create a lasting impact
Amongst the rows of makeshift plastic tents on hills, Hasin Jahan witnessed actions that have helped reduce acute humanitarian crisis. “Around 1 million people are living in this densely packed dismal condition. I realized that since there was no significant chaos or health-related incidences like cholera outbreak, the role of the organizations working there in uplifting the conditions of the people was immediate and effective.” The reality of the situation dictated that provisions for basic needs such as water, hygiene, and sanitation (WASH), health interventions be available though not adequate.
Hasin understands that these provisions are necessary, but during an emergency response, the long-term effect is not apparent until later. “Many organizations have constructed water points and toilets and provided necessary nutrition for the displaced Rohingya community. However, with time these interventions also create their own set of problems.” Hasin and her team at Practical Action decided to focus on the problems that come with sanitation, especially Faecal Sludge Management (FSM) in Ukhiya. Hasin explains that sludge management is integral to protect the environment and ensure better water quality. “The major problem with these toilets is that they fill up quickly. When they do, they overflow and contaminate the already dwindling water sources and spread communicable diseases. A recent survey from the Inter-Sector Coordination Group (ISGC) found that almost 80% of the water is contaminated with E. Coli. This condition not only reduces the availability of safe water, but it also exacerbates the prevalence of water-borne diseases. Sludge is the major contaminant. Therefore, managing it leads to better water quality and a safer environment.”
The most significant challenge was to tailor technology for the fecal sludge management in the hilly terrain of Ukhiya. Hasin elaborates, “The primary challenge was to design an appropriate context-specific treatment plant. Given the space constraint and other factors like consideration of heavy rainfall, flooding, and landslides, we have devised an over ground elevated treatment facility in this context.”
Moreover, Practical Action is training the sanitation workers who clean the latrine. Hasin and her team ensure that these workers follow a strict health and safety protocol, “Our sanitation workers wear gloves and use safety equipment during cleaning task to ensure safety.” Practical Action works synergistically with other I/NGOs and organizations to create a healthier environment. Hasin understands that additional support is integral in the bigger scheme of the matter, “When you provide a displaced population with any support that is a tangible element, you have to understand that the matter is sensitive. They may not feel a sense of ownership over what they are given. In their minds, they are convinced that these are temporary measures and they will be released from such a situation at any time.”
The universal desire for a better life struck Hasin during her recent trip. She experienced the resilience of humanity during her visit, “I met a woman whose husband and son was killed in front of her. When I entered her room at the shelter, I noticed that she had made a mud stove, a mortar and pestle out of rocks, and a small washing area in the corner from mud and bricks within her room. Hasin reveals that is was a very private moment that remarkably moved her, “She also made an overhead shelf that had 2 cooking pots, and they were her only possession. The gravity of the situation impacted me when I understood that she still had that desire to build a home and a family.”
She cites that everything starts with educating any population about the facilities and what little they can do to maintain them, “You have to instill the population with a sense of self-management even in such conditions. If you think about this in the context of toilets in the area, the larger problem is that they do not clean the toilets or wash their hands properly after they have used these facilities. This practice leads to undesirable conditions, and the next person does not want to use the toilets. As a result of this practice, we find that open defecation is becoming an increasing problem and further contaminating the environment.” This practice and training apply to another context as well. Hasin points out that the same type of education is necessary for used plastic, “There is an increasing amount of plastic waste that is accumulating in the area because they are given food in packets. Because they do not know how to handle the plastic, it accumulates, and it is not biodegradable. This deposit of plastic eventually becomes a vessel that retains water and creates a breeding ground for mosquitoes.”
Practical Action strives to create improved conditions through simple technologies. Hasin expounds that simple technology can create a difference, “I was particularly concerned with how some of the camp-dwellers were cooking in their tents. If one of those tents were to ignite, it would start a fire that would rapidly spread to a vast area in a matter of moments. Attention should be given by the concerned organizations.” They are now planning to demonstrate a temporary safe cooking facility to support community attached to a bio-gas plant. The plant would use anaerobic digestion to increase the efficiency by creating gas out of fecal waste management. Hasin is positive about this pilot initiative in Ukhia and Teknaf, “We have received a space to start our project. The idea is that the plant will generate gas for a community kitchen. This facility will give the people of that particular area a safe space to cook.”
Hasin is planning to create plastic recycling units in the area, “I watched children in the area playing with plastic bottles as toys. It inspired me to think outside the box like these children. I want to make alphabet blocks and other toys out of the plastic. If there is a mini recycling plant that could make something out of this plastic, it would not only reduce the pollution but also provide toys the children in these communities can play with.”
Intervention is not the only focus according to Hasin. She points out that many social issues need to be addressed, “A host community may feel deprived when they see the extent of relief coming from the refugee community. Even the existing camps are suffering from influx within their locality. I visited the Leda camp and noted that the living condition is deteriorating due to overuse of the existing infrastructure because the population almost doubled with an inflow of people.”
In a crisis, organizations must act fast, and that does not always ensure quality. Hasin understands that comprehensive understanding and proposition is not always possible, “We were not prepared for the sudden influx, and functioning parties have worked their best in emergency relief. During our recent meeting with the actors working there, it has been suggested to assess the gaps that exist and then plan accordingly to extend support to the Rohingya population. It is expected that a more comprehensive plan will only come forth after.”
INNOVATING TECHNOLOGY FOR A CRISIS
A conventional fecal sludge management unit (FSM) is not sufficient during an emergency crisis where such a dense population is isolated in such a small space. Typical septic tanks in the camps in Ukhiya are not suitable to handle the waste of the growing population. Furthermore, the hilly terrain, lack of skilled labor, and weather condition create further challenges.
Hasin Jahan illustrates the dynamics of the fecal sludge unit that has been designed to ensure the safe management of the waste in the emergency situation in Ukhiya, “Practical Action has built fecal sludge management units that use upflow filtration technology. A series of filtration unit separate solids and liquid. The solid portion is raw fecal sludge which is denser; it is collected at intervals and buried in burial pits where it is covered with sand envelopes that contain lime to ensure safe management. Over the period, the buried sludge convert into compost, and if needed, the compost can be excavated and the same pits can be reused. The liquid portion undergoes a series of filtration units and pollutants are absorbed by constructed wetlands with Canna Indica plants.”
THE COMPONENTS OF AN FSM UNIT
The sludge from toilets are mostly emptied using motorized collection equipment like a super sucker or any other centrifugal pump and then dumped into the dumping chamber (300 liters). The unwanted materials are screened from the disposed of sludge in dumping chamber. The sludge enters into the first filtration chamber of the fecal sludge management plant through gravitational flow. The valve at the bottom of the dumping chamber regulates the flow of sludge into the filtration unit.
SOLID-LIQUID SEPARATION CHAMBER:
Each filtration chamber is made of a steel structure with waterproof tarpaulin fitted inside the structure with a capacity of 5 cubic meter per day. Graded filter materials are placed inside the chambers. Each filtration chamber contains valves at its exit to control the outflow of sludge and effluent at different elevations. An intricate system creates interconnected chambers in the filtration unit.
The sludge flows through the filtration units following ‘upflow system.’ The solid portion of the sludge gets trapped at the bottom of the chamber while the liquid portion rises through the filter media and flows to the next chamber.
‘Constructed wetland’ is a kind of shallow trench with Canna Indica plants over a stone bed to absorb pollutants naturally. The bottom and sidewalls of the trench are lined with waterproof tarpaulin to avoid contamination by any seepage. The capacity of this chamber is at least 6 cubic meter. While the effluent passes through the constructed wetland, the microbial contents inside the effluent form gelatine and the roots of the plants reduce the pathogenic organisms. Finally, the effluent is collected and tested in the laboratory to confirm parameters for discharge in surface water bodies.
The burial pit has been constructed using locally available RCC rings of having a maximum depth of 7 feet depending on the groundwater level of the site. Each pit contains sand envelop of 4 inches which acts as filter media at the outer periphery and the bottom of the pit.
The thickened sludge in the first chamber gets emptied every week and buried in the adjacent pit having sand envelop with lime. The same process takes place in the remaining filtration units but the rate of deposition is very slow, and therefore burial of thickening sludge will be infrequent.
Overall, the efforts of the development community and I/NGOs like Practical Action has created a fundamental level of controlled fecal sludge management system. Given the intensity and pressure of people living in the Rohingya community, the efforts are minimal. A more inclusive and forward-thinking approach can enable the community to overcome the challenges that they are facing. The efforts of the international donor community have been phenomenal as has been the support of the government. Hasin believes that with time the challenges will be overcome and a more supportable environment would help these distressed people.