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Dhaka Tribune

Head above water

How is Bangladesh faring in ensuring clean water for all?

Update : 03 Dec 2023, 09:50 AM

While the world is grappling with multi-layered global challenges, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established by the United Nations General Assembly have emerged as an effective strategy to ensure sustainability and a better future for all. Among the other goals, SDG-6 addresses essential issues such as the sustainable management of clean water and sanitation for all. 

Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, is highly prone to natural disasters, including tropical cyclones and storm surges, river and coastal flooding, landslides, and droughts. As the consequences of climate change lead to erratic rainfall, reduced freshwater and groundwater availability and increased temperature, there is an increasing trend of different water and vector-borne diseases. The coastal belt, hill tracts, haor and chars, and drought-prone areas have already started feeling the heat of climate change impacts, emphasizing the importance of restoration and preservation of the scarce resource “water.” 

In many parts of the country, groundwater is depleting at an alarming rate, which threatens the availability of access to adequate safe water throughout the year. The groundwater depletion rate in and around the capital is increasing significantly higher than in other areas; one of the major reasons for that is increasing built-up areas, reducing the scope of percolation. Similar impacts in groundwater are getting clearly visible in the outskirts of Dhaka where we can see clusters of industries. This gloomy prognosis calls for serious actions for accelerating the progress of SDG 6 to ensure access to water and sanitation for all leaving no one behind.

Bangladesh has made significant progress by taking up large scale projects for water and sanitation infrastructure across the country, mainly attributed to the government’s commitment to achieving SDGs. This past March, the State Minister for Water Resources attended the 2023 UN Water Conference in New York and called upon the international community to enhance their partnership on water management in realizing SDG 6, which further reiterates the government’s firm position to overcome the prevalent challenges in achieving SDG 6.

However, the number of Wash infrastructure may not be enough if other critical factors are not considered, for example, the increase of actual coverage to hard-to-reach areas like haor, Chittagong hill tracts, coastal belt, urban slums, etc. Further, the cost of appropriate technologies and implementation, operation and maintenance requirements, and the expertise required to execute this, particularly in hard-to-reach areas, remain big questions for sustainability. 

While the government can play its role in policymaking and support to infrastructure development significantly, the active participation of the private sector is equally important in ensuring sustainability and achieving the ambitious goal of SDG 6. Private sector can provide new or appropriate technologies and management models to ensure Wash access, while the government can ensure the safety net for Wash access is extended to the impoverished.

As per the Joint Monitoring Program report, overall Wash progress in Bangladesh is a bit slower compared to the overall progress of Central and Southern Asia. Globally, achieving SDG Wash targets by 2030 will require an acceleration of a three-to-sixfold increase of the current rates of progress.  

Additional investments are required not only for infrastructure but also for operation, maintenance and management. Yet, we are yet to see significant private sector investment towards SDG6 at the level we expect.

Why is this, and how can we facilitate their involvement in a meaningful way?

We must be propositional for attracting private sector investment and try to understand from the corporate perspective. Contributions to the SDGs made by the private sector to date have not been considered in a systematic way nor reflected as an achievement of the country as a whole. Incentives to the private sector to contribute have also not been acknowledged in any form.   

Demonstration of examples of investment by the private sector and collaboration with relevant stakeholders and government needs to be visible and appreciated. An example could be harvesting rainwater for use in different purposes and promoting water replenishment to improve groundwater aquifer, which would be an attractive proposition to both the private and public sectors. 

Harvested rainwater can reduce the pressure of withdrawal of water from underground aquifers, and the replenishment can help improve aquifer health in favour of the government's strategy on “Managed Aquifer Recharge.” To enable more of this, the government needs to offer space for the private sector for making such investments. For example, the ongoing collaboration of the Coca-Cola Foundation and WaterAid Bangladesh in recent years will reach 60,000 people with access to improved and inclusive Wash solutions and empower them with the knowledge and practice of harvesting and retaining rainwater, reusing it and releasing excess water back to nature. This sort of positive initiative should be documented and disseminated, encouraging wider use.

The government could facilitate improvements to the business enabling the environment for private investors to invest more money. For example, industries reducing water use and increasing harvested rainwater could get some sort of income tax rebate, similar to how the government encourages urban residents to have rooftop gardens. Such provisions also encourage private sectors to take ownership of the responsibility for SDG achievements. 

There are ample opportunities where the private sector can invest in piped water supply microsystems, public sanitation infrastructure, management of water, sewage and sanitation facilities, and other solutions. Governments need to sit with private sectors in dialogue to open the scope of partnerships for a mutually beneficial situation. 

Agreeing into an adaptive partnership approach could be designed and rolled out to accommodate flexibility allowing the private sector to take up challenges and make Wash services accessible and viable. This window will open opportunities for the private sector to come up with more investment. Government’s crucial role will be to ensure adequacy and quality of Wash services to the people and at the same time, protecting the rights of the most marginalized population so that no one is left behind. 

Development of a brief policy developed jointly by the relevant stakeholders on how the private sector will collaborate with government through financing for SDG achievement might be useful to understand the pathway to accelerate SDG achievement.


Hasin Jahan is Country Director, WaterAid Bangladesh.

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