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Human waste creating a stink in Sri Lanka

Sep 20, 2007

Personal hygiene may be taken seriously by the people; yet toilet waste is finding its way into water bodies. Public indifference and a lack of action are creating a serious health hazard in the city of Colombo and rural areas.

The stench emanating from the Beira Lake, a major Colombo landmark, betrays the fact faecal matter finding its way into this much loved water body, through storm water drains.

Although a World Bank project is currently trying to intercept unauthorised wastewater outlets discharging into the lake and reducing sewerage overflows, public indifference and official inaction to a serious health hazard in the middle of the capital city is glaring.

"Inside their homes, they (Sri Lankans) are clean and ensure good hygiene, but there is no concern for the environment outside," said Dr Nihal Abeysinghe, chief epidemiologist at the health ministry.

Abeysinghe felt that municipalities and urban councils are not paying enough attention to good sanitation, drinking water and garbage disposal. ‘’This is not their priority. They, for example, would be more interested in having clean pavements or putting up a market place. Sanitation is considered a personal issue,’’ he said.

For the same reason cleanliness in public toilets has reached dangerous proportions says Abeysinghe, whose unit is responsible for the prevention and control of communicable diseases. "Personal hygiene is taken seriously by the people because of our high literacy levels and knowledge of health issues across all social classes. Regular washing of the hands, drinking boiled water or having a clean toilet is a must in most homes, but that attitude is missing when it comes to public lavatories.’’

Attempts to clean up Beira succeeded for a while with the water looking fresh and clean. But the success was short-lived and pretty soon the ‘big stink’ returned, courtesy the discharge from shanties, homes and offices on the banks of the lake which the authorities failed to remove or control.

The story is pretty much the same in rural Sri Lanka. Although the country boasts the best sanitation facilities in Asia for the rural poor, after Thailand, the leakage of toilet waste into water bodies from pit lavatories is a growing problem.

Kusum Athukorala, vice-chair of the Sri Lanka Water Partnership, says there are scores of latrines built along river banks where the faecal matter is allowed go directly into rivers, although many of them are sources of drinking water.

"We may have very good and acceptable level of sanitation as measured against other countries in the region, but the leakage from pit lavatories is a serious issue," Athukorala, a water specialist who has been battling against contamination of rivers for years, said.

So serious has the problem become that it is threatening to negate Sri Lanka’s impressively high human development indicators. According to a World Bank report, more than 90 percent of the population had access to improved sanitary facilities in 2004 across South Asia, against 34 percent in Afghanistan at the lower end of the table. Pakistan has a reach of 59 percent while India has been able to reach out to 33 percent of its population.

The health ministry concedes that there are problems and that, though inadequate toilets are still an issue in rural Sri Lanka, the chief problem lies not in the numbers but in proper use and construction.

Sanitary latrines are promoted through health education as well as by law. The health services department provides financial assistance for those unable to construct a toilet with their own resources. After certification, Rupees 3,000 (26 US dollars) are given to help with the construction of a latrine.

But, says water specialist Athukorala, local level bodies are ineffective and corrupt. "There are cases where these officers certify that toilets have been provided in communities -- when it is not done -- and share the spoils with the resident-applicant," she said, adding that officers also neglect to monitor latrines for possible contamination.

Athukorala says one problem in Colombo is that due to lack of space, latrine pits are constructed close to underground water storages in which water for household use is collected and stored.

Last week, a child was hospitalised with food poisoning after eating a burger at an international fast food restaurant. The doctor who examined her said faecal matter was found in the food and suspected it came from a canal running alongside the restaurant to which toilets were known to be connected.

Government officials tend to live in a state of denial. Dr P.G. Mahipala, deputy director-general in the health ministry, said: ‘’On many of our travels overseas we have found that our sanitation infrastructure is far better than in the rest of the region."

Mahipala insists that there has been a sharp drop in diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases. "There are less communicable diseases now compared to more than 10 years ago," he said. "We have good infrastructure in terms of public health, mid-wives, education, literacy and common practices of boiling water and using clean containers. We have good hygienic practices."

But the stench from Beira lake and the thick green algae floating about tell a different tale.

Source : IPS
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