By: Pankaj Thapa
Lahan Municipality in Siraha District of Nepal is a rapidly growing municipal area. As of 2011, the municipality, divided into 24 wards, had a population of 91,766 residents. A preliminary report of the 2021 Census suggests Lahan’s population has grown to 102,955 people.
According to a 2020 report by EnPHO (Environment and Public Health Organisation), 90% of Lahan’s population uses onsite sanitation systems, 4% discharge fecal waste into the drains, and 6% practice open defecation. The last statistic is surprising, given that Siraha already announced itself as an open defecation-free district. Furthermore, as per the same report, only 38% of excreta in Lahan is safely managed, whereas 62% is dumped unsafely at the cost of the environment and public health.
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Managing Lahan municipality’s fecal waste
While there are storm water drains in Lahan to help prevent inundation during the monsoons, the majority of residents are not connected to sewerage networks, and 90% of its population uses septic tanks. These septic tanks are managed by private tank operators who charge residents a per-house fee to desludge their septic tanks.
Due to the lack of a Fecal Sludge Treatment Plant in the municipality, private tank operators have only one place to dump the waste: in the open. Often this means they dump fecal sludge in arable fields at the request of the land owner. However, during the monsoons, after fields have been planted, land owners do not allow the dumping of fecal sludge and this forces prive companies to dump waste along river banks or in open areas far out of sight from the public, often in locations designated by the municipality.
Shiv Kumar Shah owns two septic disposal trucks and is one of many business owners who is extremely frustrated by the lack of a treatment plant in the area. Septic tank disposal companies have been consistently requesting the local government to build a treatment plant but have seen the plans delayed time and time again.
Saving the Balan River
East of Lahan is the Balan River, which serves as a boundary between Siraha and Saptari Districts of Madhesh Province. The Balan River has an important socio-economic and religious significance for the residents of the two districts. Several marginalized communities who live along the banks also rely on the river for their daily household needs. Fortunately, Lahan Municipality has acknowledged the importance of the Balan River and has been strict in barring septic tank trucks from dumping fecal sludge into the river.
Maheshwari Chaudhary, Program Coordinator from Lahan Municipality, understands the dangers of wastewater contamination in a source of freshwater. She explained, “Children of Dalit communities who live near the river banks swim in the water and use the water for other purposes. Therefore, the dumping of fecal sludge in the river could invite public health risks. We have therefore completely banned fecal sludge dumping in the river.”
Maheshwari also adds that services by municipality-owned septic tank trucks have been temporarily halted because residents do not allow fecal sludge by municipality trucks to be dumped in their communities. For private tank operators, until the Fecal Sludge Treatment Plant comes into operation, the municipality has designated an area to dump fecal sludge. However, private tank operators do not use the designated areas due to increases in fuel costs.
Construction of a treatment plant has seen delays
As part of improving its sanitation delivery services, Lahan Municipality has made plans to build a treatment plant. However, according to Chaudhary, the treatment plant has has also been obstructed due to several factors.
“Earlier, we were planning to build the treatment plant in Ward no. 3. However, due to obstruction from locals, we were forced to change the location,” she explained. “We are now in the final phases of beginning construction in Ward no. 04, and hopefully work will begin next month.”
Meanwhile, another municipality worker who did not wish to be named suggests that obstruction in Ward no. 03 was due to local-level politics. “Local leaders spread rumors that if they allowed the treatment plant to be built, the residents would have to live in perpetual stench of fecal waste,” he added.
Community interference in sanitation management is not limited to Lahan and is a cause for obstruction across several areas in Nepal. For example, a plan to build a fecal sludge treatment plant in Lubhu, Mahalaxmi Municipality was met with similar resistance. This is a call for local governments to set responsible examples of inclusivity where community concerns can be addressed, rumors and misinformation can be dispelled, and residents educated about the importance of such projects towards the overall development of the community.
Returning to Lahan Municipality, the government has set aside a budget of NRS 5 million this fiscal year for waste management in the municipality, solid and liquid. When asked if the budget was enough to meet sanitation needs, Chaudhary’s response highlights a nationwide plight of prioritizing development projects over sanitation improvement projects.
“We have finally been able to get a five million budget. Earlier, it was less,” she said. “However, in the coming years, we will try to add more and more budget.”
Toilets take priority over waste management
Siraha district was declared free from open defecation in March 2018 in preparation for Nepal’s race to become the first South Asian country to become an ODF nation in 2019. Local governments were entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring toilets in each household, and Nepal added hundreds of thousands of toilets in the years leading up to 2019.
However, as we built the facilities, plans to manage the waste that would come out of the facilities weren’t addressed. And today, Lahan is not the only municipality whose ODF status is threatened due to a lack of proper waste treatment facilities. Across the nation, including in Kathmandu Valley, fecal waste continues to be dumped in rivers, on river banks, and in open areas, leading us to wonder about our ODF status.
Nepal’s government, in collaboration with key stakeholders, had been preparing a policy entitled “Water and Sanitation Bill” which was finally passed by the Parliament on 28th July 2022. The bill identifies the right to dignified sanitation as a right for all citizens and has included components of CWIS such as the treatment of wastewater before dumping into rivers and effective management of fecal waste.
The passage of the bill also comes as a respite to several local units of Nepal, as it instructs and empowers local governments to ensure clean water and safe sanitation for all citizens.