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World Water Day is observed every year on 22 March. Around the world, 2.2 billion people live without access to safe water, and this day is about raising awareness and taking action to tackle the global water crisis. The theme this year is valuing water. A core focus of the day is to support the achievement of the sixth Sustainable Development Goal: Water and Sanitation for All by 2030.
Water has enormous and complex value beyond its price, for our households, health, economics, education, culture and the integrity of our natural environment. During this ongoing global pandemic, access to clean water is particularly crucial for survival.
Today this resource is under extreme threat from a growing population, increasing demands of agriculture and industry, and the worsening impacts of climate change. Thus, this year’s campaign is to create a more comprehensive understanding of how water is valued by different people in different contexts so it can be safeguarded for everyone.
Despite a number of challenges, Bangladesh has made an enormous stride in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector. According to Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) 2019, 98.5% of people have access to water from improved sources and 64.4% of the people have access to improved sanitation facilities. Open defecation has almost disappeared in the country.
Some of the major factors behind these achievements include strong commitment of the government, NGOs, and civil society organisations to make significant contributions to the WASH sector by developing relevant policies, strategies and ensuring their implementation. The Government of Bangladesh has clearly articulated its commitment to enhance access of the rural and urban population to safe water and sanitation in its five-year plan.
BRAC in WASH through the decades
BRAC’s involvement in the water and sanitation sector began in the 1970s, when diarrhoea was identified as a leading cause of mortality and morbidity. In the 1980s, BRAC implemented a programme where mothers were taught how to make a simple, homemade oral rehydration solution for children with diarrhoea. In 2006, BRAC implemented a separate and dedicated WASH programme across 152 sub-districts, which later extended to 289 sub-districts, roughly half of the country.
The intervention began with support from the Government of the Netherlands, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and charity: water. With its unique approach through creating demand, ensuring supply and appropriate financial arrangements, 2.66 million people gained access to safe drinking water from 2006 to December 2020.
Through the water and sanitation programme, 46.17 million people gained access to hygienic sanitation facilities via different financial (loan or grant) and technological support. Additionally, 482 water entrepreneurs and 3,005 sanitation entrepreneurs received loan and technical support. Women in low-income communities usually bear the primary responsibility of collecting water for drinking, cooking, sanitation and hygiene. So, from the very beginning of the programme, ensuring dignity and comfort of women and adolescent girls were prioritised.
The way to achieving the Goals
A lot more has yet to be done to achieve SDGs related to water. Only 42.6% of the surveyed population have access to safely managed drinking water services. A considerable portion of the population are exposed to water sources with arsenic and faecal contamination. There is presence of manganese, chloride and iron beyond acceptable limits.
Bangladesh is vulnerable to environmental disasters due to combined effects of climate change, population growth and urban migration. Drinking water sources are also contaminated by latrines overflowing during extreme events of disasters such as floods, landslides and cyclones. Water quality in Bangladesh is also affected by environmental pollution from industrial effluents, over-abstraction for irrigation and saltwater intrusion.
There is evidence of significant disparity in water quality of different regions in Bangladesh. In both access and quality, disparity exists between rich and poor households where the rich are more likely to have drinking water on their premises, while poor families are forced to dedicate more time collecting water from public or other outside sources. Gender inequities in water services is another issue. Among the household members without drinking water on premises, 85.4% of women collect water for families, compared to 6.8% of men who do the same.
To overcome the situation, and to achieve SDG 6 we need to continue strengthening collaboration between different government agencies and other implementers. There is a need to increase sustainable domestic and international financing in the water sector, as population growth and demand continues to rise. Many people are living under the poverty and extreme poverty lines, and among them many reside in hard-to-reach areas, remaining outside of service coverage. We have to ensure their needs and demands are met, through appropriate approaches and financial mechanisms.
We have to continue investing time, efforts and resources to achieve universal and equitable access. It is important to understand that support is needed across the spectrum – including raising awareness (and demand) in the community, strengthening the supply chain, ensuring inclusion of people in hard-to-reach areas and vulnerable situations, addressing the concerns of women and girls and empowering them to meaningfully take part in decision-making, mobilising service providers and creating linkages between them and the community, and investing in research to develop sustainable context-specific technologies.
Mahjabeen Ahmed is a Manager, Knowledge Management, Innovation and Fundraising, BRAC Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Programme. Ridwanul Haque is a Manager, Grants Management at BRAC WASH Programme.