Challenges and Opportunities to achieve ‘safely managed’ drinking water in rural Bangladesh

Researchers from the Oxford-led REACH programme outline findings from a recent water audit of 10 Bangladeshi villages and implications for water policy.

Photo Credit: Rob Hope/REACH

The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) global baseline data for Bangladesh reflects the significant progress and scale of the challenges ahead to achieve ‘safely managed’ drinking water for all by 2030. Over half the population (55%) has safely managed water (on premises, on demand, free from contamination) in 2015 (WHO/UNICEF, 2017). Despite increasing ‘improved access’ to 98% by 2015 to meet the MDG, the SDGs reveal a similar share of the population with ‘safely managed’ water as in 1990. This in the context of doubling the population, which is now estimated at over 168 million people, two thirds of which are living in rural areas. The SDGs reflect the need for new thinking and models which build on the progress of infrastructure investments but examine the institutional arrangements to ensure drinking water is safe, reliable and affordable for all.

Since independence in 1971, the Government of Bangladesh reported impressive results achieving nearly universal access to improved drinking water sources for both rural and urban populations. The national average increased from 65% coverage in 1990 to nearly 98% in 2015 (WHO/UNICEF, 2017). This achievement is particularly striking when considering the scale of infrastructure required to keep up with the growing demand: the population has doubled since 1974, increasing by 70 million people (BBS, 2011).

Achieving access to improved drinking water infrastructure therefore required significant investment in new and expanded infrastructure networks. In 2015 an estimated 10% of the population was connected to piped water systems through 136 formal, public and regulated piped water infrastructure schemes (DPHE, 2016; WHO/UNICEF 2017). While piped systems are expanding with the government planning up to 180 new small-town systems, the current high levels of improved access are achieved through millions of mostly privately-installed handpumps. To put this into context, a 2009 report by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics estimated 11 million tubewells are installed across the country; 1 million provided by the government and 10 million installed by private owners (BBS, 2009). This number will have increased significantly since this estimate.

However, in Bangladesh, the improved access target has been overshadowed by uncertainties around affordability, reliability and most significantly, water quality and safety. The SDGs formally recognize that although improved access is an important step, addressing other risk factors is critical to achieve safe and reliable drinking water for everyone, every day.

To explore the impact of this growth across these risk factors, a multi-disciplinary team from REACH including University of Oxford, the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b), UNICEF and the Government of Bangladesh’s Department of Public Health and Environment (DPHE) conducted a Water Audit across 10 villages in Chandpur and Comilla Districts. Ten female field staff from the villages went door-to-door to inventory every water point, mapping 3830 tubewells.


Photo Credit: Alex Fischer/REACH

They found a 230% increase in the number of predominantly private tubewells installed since the 2008. This decreased the population-to-infrastructure ratio from 17 people per water point in 2008 to 7 people per water point in 2017; the 2010 national ratio is 14 people per water point. This growth rate raises other questions about how to achieve safe and equitably managed drinking water in the context of increasing number of unregulated private water systems.

Water quality, specifically arsenic-safe tubewells, remains a serious risk in these villages. The recent Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics Multi-Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) estimated over 44% of the population in this district are still exposed to arsenic levels which exceed government standards (WHO/UNICEF, 2017). Our study found that less than 5% of the tubewells were tested for safe water when first installed; and 80% have no red/green marking for arsenic safety. This allows significant uncertainty for consumers, government and service providers striving to make decisions about the safety and use of the water points.

Consumer preferences are also changing with a growing portion of private investment directed towards electric pumps, deep tubewells, and water points built inside walled structures within household premises. The majority of the handpumps, 90% at the time of interview, were functional. Of those, 10% of owners and managers reported their wells have been previously broken (no water flow), but are now functioning again. This reflects the high-rate of reported annual investment to maintenance and repairs.

While these findings are provisional with additional analysis underway, this study reinforces projections of private investment’s role in drinking water supplies and potentially new horizons in public and private models to promote ‘safely managed’ drinking water. The significant rate of private capital investment in new tubewells and the reported high-rates of household-financed annual maintenance, suggest an expanded frontier for potential funding and management models. These new models will need to address the ongoing risks in water safety for newly installed water points, changing preferences, and equity of safe and affordable access. These topics are the subject for the forthcoming phase of analysis.

For more information about the study findings and implications, please read the policy brief.

The study is part of a collaboration between the Department for Public Health and Engineering, UNICEF, icddr,b, BUET and the University of Oxford. It was coordinated by Alex Fischer (University of Oxford), in partnership with Zakir Hossain (icddr,b), Tazrina Ananya (BUET), Syed Adnan (UNICEF) and Firoza Akter (DPHE). The study was supervised by M. Sirajul Islam (icddr,b), Dara Johnston (UNICEF) and Rob Hope (University of Oxford).

A version of this article first appeared on the REACH website.

Water security and poverty in coastal Bangladesh: can modelling be of help?

Dr Edoardo Borgomeo, Consultant at the World Bank’s Water Global Practice, and Honorary Research Associate at Oxford University’s Change Institute, outlines recent research conducted as part of the Oxford-led REACH programme.

Ten years ago, cyclone Sidr struck coastal Bangladesh. The storm caused 3447 fatalities and at least as many more deaths due to the spread of waterborne diseases following the storm. Sidr also led to the evacuation of more than 500,000 people, large-scale economic damage, and loss of livelihoods. Yet cyclones like Sidr are not the only water curse experienced by people in coastal Bangladesh. Salt water gets into soils, making it more difficult for plants to grow, in turn reducing the crop yield that farmers get. Salinity also gets into drinking water, contaminating water supplies and compromising people’s health, especially that of pregnant women.

Protecting land and people from these impacts may sound like the obvious thing to do in coastal Bangladesh. This is why in the 1960s a series of embankments were constructed across Bangladesh’s coasts to protect fields and people from flooding and boost agricultural production. Despite these investments, more than 8 million people in coastal Bangladesh still live in poverty and suffer from water’s destructive impacts.

As with all water issues, addressing water security in coastal Bangladesh requires adaptation and learning. At the sharp end, this involves continuous support to populations affected by water’s impacts as well as engagement with government and international organizations to gain sustained political and economic support. In the backrooms of academia, addressing water security challenges often involves collecting data and developing models to improve our understanding of how water interacts with social and economic outcomes.

As the rise of big data and complexity has shown, when quantitative modelling approaches are combined with testable hypotheses, interesting and actionable results often emerge. Water modelling can be used to answer important questions on investments and resilience in coastal Bangladesh. In this study, water modelling is used to examine the dynamics between water and poverty, asking two questions (1) How do improvements in the way water infrastructure is operated and maintained reduce and prevent water’s destructive impacts? (2) How can these improvements benefit the poorest and marginalized members of the communities?

To answer these questions, we follow a series of step. First, we decide upon the scale of our model, this could be from a single household to the whole coastal zone. Then, we come-up with mathematical functions to represent reality. These functions form our model, which describes the multiple relationships between water-related factors, such as storms and salinity, and agricultural production and income for farmers. Third, we use data to validate our model. This means checking that our results give a fair representation of what we observe in reality. Finally, we change some of the conditions in the model, for instance increase the frequency with which water infrastructure is maintained. This allows us to see how farmers’ incomes change depending on the type of water management actions and investments we take. Eventually, this can be used to identify the type of investments that increase water security for the poor. In the study, these steps are followed to reveal how improvements in the way in which water infrastructure is operated and maintained can have non-marginal effects on the incomes of poor farmers. That is, the study shows how these improvements create benefits that go beyond simply protecting communities from flooding and salinity, to positively influence economic opportunities and well-being in the long-term.

In the end, the choice of which investment to make to enhance water security will not only be based on modelling. It will be based on community views, government priorities, financial resources, and many other factors. Water modelling can inform these important policy choices and contribute to improving water security for millions of poor people in coastal Bangladesh.

This blog is based on a journal paper written by REACH researchers and recently published in the International Journal of Water Resources Development. The paper can be downloaded here.

A version of this post originally appeared on the REACH website.