Shahid Malik meets a monsoon in Bangladesh

31 July 2008

Photo of Moushumi with the children she looks afterThe narrow path through the corrugated metal shacks was muddy and treacherous from the recent monsoon downpours, but this was only a minor inconvenience for residents of Dhaka's Tekpara slum.

For DFID Minister Shahid Malik though, in Tekpara last month to find out about an innovative sanitation project, it led the way to the ultimate contrast in working environments - and to an encounter that won't soon be forgotten.

A slum family

Playing with her friends as she waited for the Minister to arrive was 12-year-old Moushumi. Moushumi explained that her family came to Tekpara seven years ago, after they were evicted from their previous home in a slum in the shadow of a five-star Dhaka hotel.

She described how, to make ends meet, the family are reliant on the £8 per month that her mother earns from her part-time job in a garment factory, plus the small amount of money that her father's vegetables bring in at the local market. With this, they are just about able to cover the rent on their 8 by 9 foot metal home and pay the electricity bill for their single light bulb and fan.

For today's special occasion, the slum school's one teacher had allowed Moushmi to take the day off. But this morning, like every morning, Moushumi had hardly been idle. Each day, balanced against the responsibility of looking after her neighbours' young children, it is Moushumi's duty to hand-pump her family's washing and drinking water from the local reservoir. The reservoir - which was built by the DFID-funded project that Shahid Malik had come to Tekpara to see - has made a real difference to the life of this hugely impoverished community.

Changing behaviour

Five years ago, sanitary conditions in the slum were appalling. The 2,300 inhabitants were served by only two latrines and open defecation was widespread. Drainage was also very substandard, meaning the ground beneath the residents' makeshift homes frequently became logged with water. Most people in the community were unaware of even the basics of environmental hygiene.

A non-governmental organisation working out of Dhaka, Dushtha Shasthya Kendra (DSK), gave itself six years to equip the slum with decent sanitation. Part of a WaterAid programme that is operating throughout Bangladesh (supported by over £15 million of DFID money), the DSK project is overhauling the infrastructure that can make the difference between health and sickness, and even life and death.

Nowadays, as well as the reservoir there are 20 latrines in place in Tekpara, each of which contains 53 chambers. But the project is about more than just hardware: it also teaches the slum-dwellers about safe hygiene practices, to ensure that the recent improvements aren't lost after the project comes to an end in 2009.

A healthier way of life

When Shahid Malik arrived at the settlement, staff of DSK and the Dhaka Water and Sewerage Authority wasted no time in providing a thorough introduction to the nuts and bolts of the project. Showing him around the newly installed facilities, they explained the inner workings of the machinery and talked about the unique challenges involved in maintaining a smooth-running sanitation system.

At a distance was Moushumi, watching fascinated as the Minister found out about the changes that have made such an impact on her life. Although her family is still struggling to achieve a decent standard of living, the availability of clean water and efficient toilets has shown them that a healthier, more comfortable future could be in their grasp.

Just then, to the girl's surprise, Shahid Malik caught sight of her. Her eyes lit up and the broadest of smiles spread across her face as he approached. Crouching down beside her, the Minister shook her hand and posed for a photograph. She gave her name as Moushumi, and he asked what it meant.

"It means ‘Monsoon’," she said proudly, and the smile remained with her for the rest of the day.

Facts and stats

  • Since 2003 DFID has been working with WaterAid Bangladesh and its local NGO partners, providing up to £15.75 million towards financing the project Advancing Sustainable Environmental Health (ASEH).
  • Since its inception, ASEH has ensured access to safe domestic water for more than 1.3 million and to improved sanitation for nearly 4.2 million poor people in both urban and rural communities.
  • ASEH has also reached over 4 million people through its hygiene education programme.