SEATTLE, Washington — In 2017, stories about Bangladeshi sewer divers made the headlines. Most of the reported sewer divers worked in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. These sewer divers plunge into the clogged drainage systems of Dhaka whenever the sewage overflows into the Dhaka streets. They enter sewage drains without any safety equipment. Bringing only a long stick, these divers navigate into the overflowing sewage in order to unclog the sewage drains. This lack of equipment usually results in health complications. Who are these sewer divers? Why are they performing a job that many consider to be one of the worst jobs on the planet?
Dhaka’s Drainage System Issues
Dhaka is considered to be the most crowded city in the world. According to the U.N. estimate in 2013, there were 44,500 people per square kilometer in Dhaka. The rapidly rising urban population of Dhaka is putting a strain on the city’s sewers. Recent estimates show that Dhaka’s population grew from more than 14 million people in 2010 to more than 21 million people in 2020. The population is estimated to continue to grow over the next 20 years. This increase in the city’s population is usually caused by people migrating into the city for better jobs and better pay.
The rapidly rising population of Dhaka along with Bangladesh’s heavy rainfall has put a huge strain on the city’s drainage system. Bangladesh has a tropical wet and dry climate. During the monsoon season, between April and September, an average of 13 inches of rain per month. When nearby rivers are also flooding, this almost makes it impossible for the rainfall to naturally dissipate into the grounds. While the less-populated western part of Dhaka is somewhat protected from flooding, the eastern part of Dhaka is more susceptible to flooding due to the lower altitude.
The Life of Bangladesh Sewer Divers
The sewer divers of Bangladesh are the remedy for Dhaka’s lack of an efficient drainage system. While
the majority of Bangladesh’s population is Muslim, there is also a sizable Hindu population. After the Bangladeshi war of independence from Pakistan, the Hindus in Bangladesh are still not treated well. The majority of the sewer divers are Hindus.
Many of the sewer divers belong to the Dalit caste, more commonly known as the untouchables. Because of their caste, these Dalits are confined to performing menial jobs. In the case of a sewer diver named Sujon, he inherited his job from his father. In his interview with the Guardian in 2018, Sujon said that he is forced to work as a sewer diver in order to support his family. Sewer divers like Sujon only earn an average of $10 a day.
Sewer divers like Sujon are working a thankless job that is also very dangerous. Multiple factors contribute to the conditions that put sewer divers’ health in jeopardy. For instance, many sewer divers are also responsible for cleaning the septic tanks that many Bangladeshi homes have. As sewage decomposes in these tanks, it produces sewage gas. This sewage gas is composed of methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide and many other gases. These gases are not only highly toxic when inhaled but gases such as Hydrogen sulfide are also corrosive and flammable. In his interview, Sujon said that one of his sewer cleaner coworkers died of a septic tank explosion.
Sewer Diving Health Risks
The lack of safety gears for the sewer divers also poses a health risk. In many cases, the sewer divers work half-naked. The lack of gas masks for the sewer divers, for example, exposes them to many poisonous fumes while they work. Sewer divers are also exposed to many insects that breed within the sewers, exposing them to multiple diseases that are carried by mosquitoes. When sewer divers dive into the liquid filth of the sewers, the lack of protective gear exposes their skin to the acidic sludge.
These sewer cleaners often face long-term medical issues such as nausea, skin disease, anemia and jaundice. Unfortunately, there aren’t many news stories or data that suggest that the Bangladeshi government is making any progress to help these sewer divers. Many sewer divers turn to alcohol and drugs to deal with the harsh reality of their occupation. They hide their occupation from their community in order to save their families from stigma and discrimination that many tend to associate with their occupation.
The Bangladesh sewer divers perform a dangerous and thankless job. The lack of an efficient sanitation network in Dhaka especially makes this job necessary in urban populations. However, the discrimination that many sewer divers face, on top of lackluster pay and lack of protection, for their occupation is only making it more challenging for them to escape the cycle of poverty. However, there are glimpses of improvement. In 2018, there was a protest in India for a sewer cleaners’ death. Many hope that the call for better sanitation systems and rights for the sewer cleaners in India will translate into Bangladesh.
– YongJin Yi