Take a look at the picture above of a slum in Jakarta, Indonesia. Now tell me how you would get a typical large sanitation truck through the slum in order to collect human “sludge”. That’s a question that Mercy Corps’ Indonesian team asked themselves, and they came up with a great answer.
In Indonesia 50,000 people die every year as a result of poor sanitation, most of them being in slums like the one above. It’s understandable since none of the waste is taken out of the slum, so it either just stays where it was deposited, gets washed into a water supply, or someone steps in it and tracks it all over. Not a good situation to be in, but because these people are so poor there is little they can do about it on their own.
With all this in mind Mercy Corps started a program called RW Siaga++ (“neighborhood alert”) with the goal of providing sanitation to the millions that live without it in the Jakarta slums. They developed two products to do this: the custom sludge cart, and improved septic tanks.
The custom sludge cart aimed to reach people that for years have been unreachable due to the narrow and crowded corridors of the slums. The program went to the drawing board and came back with a three-wheeled cart that is capable of maneuvering through the slums which they called Kedoteng. These carts are equipped with a sludge storage tank, a pump, and hoses that can reach up to a little over 150 feet. With this technology latrines throughout slums can now be cleaned out with ease.
The second product was improved septic tanks. These tanks are also built specifically for slums; they’re made out of local available materials, they are small so they can fit in the slums, and they only have to be cleaned out every 2 years. The reason they can go so long without being cleaned out is because they have a built in bio-filter that cleans and separates the waste without the use of chemicals. These septic tanks have the capacity for five people so they would need a lot of them to meet the needs of everyone in the slums, but it’s a step in the right direction.
So you have the products, but now you need the demand for these products. A lot of people in places such as slums don’t realize the importance of improved sanitation for a healthy life. Mercy Corps knows this and the next step was to educate the public on why these products were necessary. Mercy Corps started educating people through radio/billboard ads, full-color comic books, school bags for children, and even hired a local comedian to talk up the new systems.
Apparently their marketing campaign worked because this program has been very successful, bringing improved sanitation to 9,000 people and 1,800 households in Jakarta’s slums. And the government is paying attention. Jakarta’s district health offices have started replicating the educational side of the program in order to get the word out to as many people as it can.
While everything that I’ve just written about is great and has helped a lot of people there’s one aspect of the program that I’m not sure I agree with, and would love to hear your opinion on. They are charging people to use these products and basically running it like a business. One article I read put it this way:
“Instead of simply funding a project to build latrines in Jakarta’s slums, they take a market-development approach that will strengthen the value chain of Jakarta’s private sanitation services industry, utilize new technology to enable sanitation companies to access previously unreachable people, and turn those people into customers.”
I realize that organizations can’t provide everything for free, but Mercy Corps is working with corporations like Coca Cola and Suez which have been widely criticized for, among other things, the way they go into poor areas, privatize the water, and then sell it at inflated prices (in some places a bottle of water is more expensive than the same sized bottle of soda). For more on that you can check out the film FLOW (I believe it’s still on Netflix). I don’t feel like you should be making money off of something like sanitation to the poor, and that’s what it sounds like they’re doing. And while Mercy Corps is trying to lower the costs as much as possible they say the installation costs to the target demographic is still 150-250% of a month’s income. For a typical slum family this makes these services unreachable.
So needless to say I have some reservations about the program, but I guess in the end, even if they’re paying, it is helping some people to get improved sanitation that wouldn’t have it otherwise, and that’s a good thing. Thanks for reading, and please leave a response below and let me know what you think about the program.