Ataima Marma (47) worries when the dry season comes around. This indigenous hill-woman's worries are about water. She lives in the village Moratila of Panchari upazila (sub district) in Khagrachhari district. Khagrachhari is one of three districts in Chittagong Hill Tracts, the sole hilly region of Bangladesh.
Ataima's hilly village is located seven kilometers away from the upazila headquarters. Although the demand for water is low during winter, the main source of water begins to dry up around this time. Ataima is a farmer and has a husband and four children.
Setting up a ‘ring well’ (patakua) in the rocky soil of this village does not work either. The only way for the villagers is to dig deep and find water. And this work takes at least an hour and a half of Ataima's day. She has to go out three times a day in search of drinking water.
People in remote areas in Bangladesh, in the hilly areas or the coastal areas of the country, have to suffer like Ataima for drinking water. The time or money these people have to spend on water is several hundred times higher than those in the capital city Dhaka or other cities.
Aftab Opel, head of programs at Water Aid, an international organisation, has conducted multiple studies on the disparity between people in the cities and those in the villages in terms of access to water.
He portrayed this image of village and city water inequality using ‘opportunity cost’, a much used methodology in economics. This means determining the monetary value of the time it takes to do one task, how much it will cost to do another job.
Ataima Marma spends at least an hour and a half to collect water in a day. Now in the rural areas of Bangladesh, the wages of a day laborer are like Tk 400 (around 5 US dollars). If one pays 8 hours a day and gets 400 taka, then the opportunity cost is Tk 50 (55 cents) per hour. Ataima has to spend one and a half hours to collect water, and then the opportunity cost stands at Tk 75.
A family living in Dhaka WASA (Water Supply and Sewerage Authority) area has to pay Tk 11.57 (15 cents) for a thousand liters of water. In the remote mountainous area where Ataima lives, financially low-income people have to pay Tk 75 for 30 liters of water.
The drinking water crisis is also evident in the coastal areas of the country.
Ranjit Mandal, a teacher, resides at Shyamnagar upazila headquarters in the coastal district of Satkhira. A man provides 150 liters of water per week to the Ranjit. He brings water from Kaliganj upazila (the upazila adjacent Shyamnagar) and gives it to Ranjit. This meets a full week’s demand for drinking water for Ranjit's five-member family. They have to spend Tk 130 for this.
Water trading has now become a lucrative business in the remote areas of coastal districts including Satkhira. Many people are getting involved in the enterprise.
Economist and executive chairman of Power and Participation Research Center (PPRC), a leading think tank in country, Hossain Zillur Rahman said, "All the goals of state policy are centrally or explicitly capital-oriented. This is why this discrimination exists.'
This former caretaker government adviser Hossain Zillur said, the water disparity is not a phenomenon in the remote areas like the hills or the coast with the center or capital. This disparity exists within the capital itself.
Dhaka WASA has set up an ATM booth next to a water pump house to sell low-cost drinking water to customers. WASA sources said that ATM services were originally introduced to provide safe water to pedestrians, people who have no valid connection to slum dwellers. The price per liter is 5 paisa.
Aftab Opel said, "WASA says this is their initiative to provide poor people with pure water, but why does it cost 40 paisa (one-third of a cent)? Where the price of a thousand liters of water is 11 and a half, this is undoubtedly a discrepancy. ”
Studies show that government allocation of water and sanitation is centre oriented. A study by the Water Aid, UNICEF and PPRC finds that more than 5 per cent of the allocation in water and sanitation sector goes to four WASA (Water Supply and Sewerage Authority)’s in Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna and Rajshahi, the four mega cities in country. Three-fourths of Bangladesh’s population lives in small towns and villages but the allocation there is less than 20 per cent. Political considerations also take precedence over the allocation of money, the study says.
The study, published in March last (2019) year, showed that the four WASAs have received more than Tk 3 billion in the last three financial years. This is more than 66 per cent of the country's total allocation to the water and sanitation sector. During this time, the remaining metropolitan cities received Tk 27 billion. The allocation for the remaining municipalities and villages of the country was more than Tk 23 billion.
Hossain Zillur said, "Monopoly is being made in the budget for a centralised policy. The way to go about this is to reduce inequality in the budget allocation.”
But what is the government thinking about this?
Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperative (LGRD) ministry looks after the water and sanitation sector of the country.
LGRD minister Tajul Islam said, “It is a fact that in the geographically backward areas of Bangladesh, the facilities are scarce. It cannot be denied that there are problems of water on the coast and in the hills.”
As solutions, Tajul simply says, “We are working to solve this problem and eliminate discrimination.”