The toilet connection
SMRITI MALLAPATY KATHMANDU, SEP 03 -
In the Bhutanese refugee camps of Eastern Nepal, the 2006 announcement of resettlement into developed countries was met with both apprehension and appreciation. Efforts to repatriate the over 100,000 refugees have so far failed, and since Nov. 2007, at least 35,000 refugees have left for Western countries, most notably the US.
Third-country resettlement has, however, brought new challenges and opportunities for all seven camps—and lesser-known is its impact on sanitation. Water and sanitation in the camps is the sole responsibility of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), funded by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). With the resettlement programme expected to continue till 2014, the likelihood of integrating the remaining refugee population into host communities in Nepal has increased. LWF and UNHCR are addressing this prospect through the construction of permanent structures and realisation of cooperative projects with the host communities that aim to improve sanitation in the camps. Resettlement has also necessitated logistical rearrangements and a response to changing behaviours among those still in the camps—issues that LWF and UNHCR are both struggling to respond to.
‘One of the best’
In the early 1990’s, LWF constructed one ventilated improved double-pit latrines (VIDP) for every two households. VIDPs are a relatively-cheaper, low-maintenance system that reduces inhospitable smells and flies through elongated vent pipes. LWF also established a pit system for dumping and burning solid waste. Refugees were trained on how to compost their biodegradable waste and apply it, as well as the night soil from the VIDPs, to their vegetable gardens. Additionally, household soakpits were dug to drain domestic wastewater.
These solutions served the refugees for two decades. In a 2006 water supply and sanitation study of Timai camp by Shapkota and Lee, they noted, “The environmental health standards practised have been reported as one of the best managed situations in any refugee scenario.” Salient features pointed out were “the excellent maintenance of the excreta disposal system; change from the habit of open defecation to the use of environmentally safe system; source segregation of solid waste and adoption of composting technology (resource recycle); and the practice of effective wastewater disposal.”
Human waste disposal in the camps met internationally-recognised standards, as delineated by the Sphere Projects’ guidelines for humanitarian assistance, in terms of capacity (no more than 20 users per toilet), proximity (less than 50m from each household), and privacy (bamboo shelter and covered roof). Universal access to toilets is also a relative advantage when compared to the host community, where many still practise open defecation or use rudimentary latrine structures.
Given the past successes with sanitation, LWF and UNHCR have had to modify their efforts due to changes in the camps brought on by resettlement. A number of refugees began receiving money from friends and relatives who had resettled abroad, and many awaited a future beyond their limbo status. For those in the camps, organisations extended opportunities to ease local integration and further strengthen kinship with host communities—a relationship previously chequered with resentment. “As the population in the camps diminishes, we want to reinforce services for the local people and create better synergy and less of an artificial separation between the two communities,” explains Stéphane Jaquemet, recently-appointed UNHCR Representative in Nepal.
In early 2010, LWF piloted a communal solid waste management project to be jointly managed by and servicing both communities. Through the arrangement, biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste are segregated in each household, collected in tractors and taken to burn or compost in two designated dumping sites near Beldangi 1 and Sanischare. A transition towards self-sustenance is expected through profits generated from selling the fertiliser. “We could perhaps sell our fertiliser at Rs. 8 or 9 per kg, but that would depend on our production and how we impart knowledge about its benefits to customers,” explains Kishor Rai, chairman of the Environment and Waste Management Committee in Pathari Bazaar, the town bordering Sanischare camp. Besides building consensus, the initiative is also aimed at showing gratitude for the host community’s acceptance of the refugees. “We have seen a major positive change in Pathari Bazaar since the launch of this initiative. Before, waste was strewn across every corner and alleyway of the bazaar,” says Rai.
Unfortunately, resettlement has also prompted problems for waste management. Almost 2,000 huts have been dismantled in the three Beldangi camps. Devi Ghimire, Gender Focal Point for Beldangi 2, criticised the abandonment of toilets in vacant housing lots, from which putrid smells have emanated. As huts are vacated, camp facilities are also being merged. One high school in Beldangi 2 now accommodates students from all three camps, a total of over 1700 students and 65 staff members. Most of the school’s toilets are not functioning and construction of new toilets has not kept pace, leaving students to defecate in open jungle.
Delays have also been seen in the renovation and maintenance of household toilets, although it is debatable whether this is a result of resettlement, standard logistical problems or simply a shift in UNHCR policy in 2005 towards targetted latrine and shelter assistance for emergencies and economically-vulnerable families. Broken cement rings, squatting plates and vent pipes have not been fixed for months, the monsoon rains exacerbating seepage.
“While timely repair would be good,” justifies Tek Bahadur Gurung, Secretary of the Camp Management Committee in Beldangi 1, “the system of toilet management is well-maintained.” Neglect by the refugees themselves may also be a factor. “Many people think, ‘we are leaving soon anyway’, so they care less about cleaning their toilets, huts, and lanes,” comments Krishna Maya Dhakal, Deputy Secretary in Beldangi 1, “Compared to the past, management by refugees in the camps has also slackened.”
Many of the volunteers and incentive workers that NGOs like LWF depend on have left, consequently putting a strain on operations. “Resettlement is a good thing, but it also destabilises the whole system,” explains Jaquemet. In view of these problems, UNHCR is planning to introduce a cleanliness reward system. However, Jaquemet acknowledges, “Increasing incentives for refugees will not be sufficient. We have noticed that in almost every single field, we will have to replace refugees by non-refugee professionals, which will increase costs.”
Other aspects of the refugees’ lives including healthcare and education also suffer from increased turnover, decline in quality of work, and reduced availability of skilled labour. “We try to keep up with the resettlement by regularly recruiting new teachers, but the constant change has psychologically affected our students,” adds Father Amalraj, Field Director of Caritas Nepal in Damak. Parents sometimes resist sending their children to school because the system abroad may anyway not be compatible. “We no longer have the kind of motivation which is sufficient to be involved in various activities in the camps,” says Jaquemet.
Of the 77,000 refugees still in the camps, 56,000 have declared interest in resettlement. Confronted with a diminution of trained and skilled workers, an attending inertia towards maintaining the camps, and infrastructural adjustments as a result of the resettlement, sanitation strategies need revision. A few projects have already been initiated to accommodate the change, but more emphasis on incentives, local mergers and quick response to the fast-transforming internal constitution of the camps is necessary.