The UN acknowledges clean drinking water is essential to the realisation of all human rights. In Bangladesh, 4.3 million people still do not have access to clean water. With a growing commercialisation of drinking water, how do you explain that all people, especially the poor, will have access to drinking water from an improved source by 2030?
I must refer to the Water Rules 2018 to talk about this issue. It says the price of water will be assessed based on two things -- social and economic values. Water too has a production cost. As per the 2018 rules, price of water would be fixed considering two things - production cost and people’s capacity to afford it.
We can avail water in a much-subsidised rate in our country. Yet, people have to purchase water at a very high rate in coastal belt, like Khulna’s Paikgacha where salinity is huge. So, what the government should do is to arrange a cross subsidy. That means the affluent would be charged more and those who cannot afford it would be brought under a safety net. Secondly, a protective mechanism must be in place in production of water aimed at monitoring the commercialisation of water.
We are not the owner of water. It is the government who owns it. But there is no proper monitoring on water. That is why many are making profit out of water and many are not getting access to it. Besides, there is neither a control mechanism nor a monitoring mechanism on water extraction. As a result, whenever anyone wants, she/he can extract water at her/his will. And a control and monitoring mechanism is essential.
This year, the World Water Day will be observed with the theme “Groundwater – Making the invisible visible”. The groundwater level in Dhaka is declining and at this rate, it may fall to 100 to 150 metres by 2050. Seventy per cent of water supplies comes from groundwater in Dhaka plus irrigation also heavily dependent on similar sources in rural area. What sustainable water management approach should we take to prevent any possible disaster in near future?
First of all, maximum amount of water is used in agriculture -- more than 80 per cent. Modernisation of our irrigation system is the first thing. And for that entire work, the 2018 Water Rules must be implemented in agriculture. Secondly, water usage in industry sector should be brought under control; industries will be encouraged to harvest rainwater to minimize subsidy their water usage. Every industry has a big roof on their facilities, if they harvest rainwater, they will require extracting a less amount of groundwater. This must be made mandatory that industry will use rainwater first then they extract groundwater as per their necessity. A control mechanism must be in place too.
In case of drinking water, we must think about how much we can minimise in production. We must avoid wasting water. People waste drinking water a lot. We use clean water for tree, car washing etc. We, too, can harvest rainwater. Besides, the Bangladesh National Building Code 2021 states each house will have a rainwater harvesting facility. They would either harvest or use or recharge this water. If we do this, we can gradually take a sustainable management approach to water.
Except for a few companies, most use single use plastic bottle to sell drinking water. What are your thoughts on it?
I am very much against it. It is okay water would be made available to people in bottles. It is okay too companies would use plastic bottle unless they have an alternative. If we use plastic bottles, we must have an appropriate recycling method. If companies have proper recycling measures, they can use it. We, the customers, also produce waste. We throw these away hither and thither and face no consequences. Many countries including the USA charge for waste disposal. One should be charged on how much waste one would dispose. Had there been an adequate fine on waste disposal we would have been more careful in producing waste. Recycling cost can be added to production cost though it increases water price a little it creates an environmental solution.
Incompetence, irregularities, corruption and allegations of supplying stinky water mar the Dhaka WASA that serves nearly 22.5 million people in the capital. As a development professional specialising in water, what do you advise the policymakers to improve the state of services delivered by Dhaka WASA?
People often blame the government or the agency providing public utilities. In fact, problems persist on both ends. Firstly, the supplied water is not extracted in a polluted state. Its quality was good enough at sources but when it is supplied to your house it stinks. Why? There must be something wrong in the supply line. There are mainly two problems, one from WASA’s end and another from consumer’s end. There are numerous leaks on the supply pipeline and dirt enters into water through it. This pipeline must be replaced and WASA have started this work but yet to complete it. It is called DMA (District Metered Area) lines and where DMA line has not been installed as yet must be done so. Another problem is that do we, as house owners, clean the water tank regularly in every three or six or nine months? Besides, water contains huge amount of iron and that deposit in the stagnant water of the tank. Iron mixing with oxygen creates a layer. If we do not clean it, when the water arrive again it gets mixed with the iron. Then we say water is dirty. So, as a consumer, we did not do our duty.
There is another problem. Previously, WASA mostly extracted underground water. Now they are slowly taking surface water and the level of pollution in surface water is almost as same as waste water. This water is purified with using huge amount of chlorine, medicines and disinfectants and even this refined water stinks. Only talking about stinky water is not enough. We must find the reasons too. People throw away plastic here and there. Industrialist dump waste into water. So, this is like a vicious cycle where all parties are involved and all have a role to play. Whether I am a consumer or industrialist or agriculturist, everyone has some role to play. Since we are not performing our duty properly, we are heading towards a bad state.
You talked about the role of consumers, especially house owners. Does it require any rules making it mandatory to clean water tank regularly in a certain time?
There are two things. Firstly, it is a bit difficult to make rules on the quality of water. Say, water contains more iron somewhere, so this would require more cleaning. Or, water is relatively better somewhere. So, it kind of depends on the location and situation. Whatever, water tank must be cleaned and I can carry this massage to everyone. Right. I would know when the water tank of my house needs cleaning. I myself can make a rule based on how many months the water tank remains cleans. It can be three, four or six months. I think we should make people aware of hygiene to this end too.
Recently, the Dhaka WASA proposed to raise water tariff for 15th time in 13 years claiming they want to ‘adjust tariff hike with production cost’. If the tariff increases, how would it affect city dwellers’ life? Can there not be any alternative to increasing the tariff? What are your thoughts?
We have talked to Dhaka WASA over this matter. Since we work for the poor and, in Dhaka, the slum dwellers, we are very concerned over what would happen to these slum dwellers. So, we are carrying out a study. With its findings, we would propose Dhaka WASA an area-based tariff. And what we are trying to say that the poor should spend relatively less and the rich should pay more. But how the Dhaka WASA would implement it because there are various complexities. Say, a four-story building accommodates families on two floors and offices on the remaining two floors. So, what sort of water connection it would be, commercial or domestic? Besides, there are both rich and poor people in every area. Say, Gulshan is a posh area but the poor people live in Karail slum next to it. So, how would you do so? After analysing all such complexities, we would give them a guidance on how they could fix the tariff so that people who are relatively rich pay more and people who are relatively poor spend less. We are jointly working on it and if their board approves and if it is implemented then it would lessen the burden on people.
Does the water sector attract sufficient fund from donor agencies? Should the government be more active to this end?
Water, in fact, is a subsector. We work on drinking water. And if you indicate water resources then it is another issue. From the perspective of drinking water, it is not that it draws big funding. The fund always comes as a portion of the broader sector. When people talk about the broader sector like water management, they put less importance on dirking water because it shares a less percentage. But considering the impact, drinking water sector carries maximum importance. If I do not have the water to drink, what would I do with the water for irrigation? We often mix importance versus extent. It is not necessary that donors should take part. We are graduating to LDC and the government is quite capable now. The size of our budget is big. It has increased every year except the last one. If this trend of getting bigger budget continues; if adequate allocation can be made on water sanitation and hygiene considering the increased use of water due to Covid; if the utilisation of allocation can be ensured and if we can make our infrastructures climate and disaster resilient, then we can do better even with the less allocation and if the budget is adequate, we can do the best.
Other than your profession, you are also a writer. You have authored a book. Would you share your experience as a writer? Do you have any plan to take up writing as fulltime in future?
Two years back, I started writing a personal blog to share my thoughts and opinions on what is happening in our society. I blogged often and it started getting popular. At that time, a publisher approached me and said why not publish a book. That is how the writing started. Last year, Pencil Publications approached me. They want to know what are my thoughts on women or whether I can do something for women.
If you look around you would find huge number of women working in apparel sector and NGO frontline but how many of women you would find in decision-making or policymaking. Many a time when I attend programmes, I also found myself the only woman sitting there as the head of an organisation. Then it struck me why the girls do not step forward. There are several reasons. often, women do not even know what to do, how to build a professional career. Being a woman, one has to handle many things, maintain work life balance and demonstrate performance or else she would not get a promotion. So, how a woman would negotiate; how she would demonstrate at her job; how she would develop her leadership skill; and these things are missing. But I have learned all these as I had to overcome lots of hurdles throughout my 30-year career. I did not come to this position in one day. I received a lot of training from time to time and picked many things from there. And when I analysed all these things, I thought girls needs a guidance. What they should do, be it junior, senior, mid-level or even the women of our age. There are two things necessary for the people of our age. We also have things to learn. One is how we would contribute to society because we have taken a lot from the society. It is our turn to give it back plus if we go on retirement how would we lead our life; what our retirement plan is. These are also necessary. In my book, I have captured how a woman would plan her life from student life to retirement.
I do have a plan on two things. One is that I have seen throughout my journey girls do not have any guidance. Say, she faces a personal or workplace problem, but how she would handle it, to whom she would share her ordeal? There is no one to give her advice; no one to guide, coach or mentor her. So, I want to do this as a coach or mentor. Though I do it now unofficially, I would start it properly soon. If I can conduct at least 40 one-to-one session a year, I would make a social contribution then. Besides, I have plan to write more on many things like office etiquette and communication skills plus I may write on my learning that I gained throughout my career. And yes, I have a plan to write another book but it would require research. When I would start mentoring then I would figure out what kinds of struggles people go through and how to deal with these. I want to write something on such practical and real-life issues.