"Water for the Poorest" World Water Week



Stockholm: Thurday August 19, 2004 I attended World Water Week Seminar on "Water for the Poorest": donors response for the UN Milenium Development Goals, held by the International Water Academy (TIWA) international overseas development assistance for water and sanitation (ODA) addressing the needs of the poorest? Representative from donor and developing countries attended the seminar.

The MDGs have been supported as a global objective and a commitment, implying consent from all involved parties.

  • How do we secure that ODA for water and sanitation will reach the poorest?
  • How do current aid patterns respond to the water-related MDGs?
  • To which extent is current aid for water and sanitation directed towards poverty alleviation?
  • How can the degree to which current aid for water and sanitation is poverty-directed at the country and project level be assessed?

    The financing strategy discussed that the needs to ensure the poorest of the poor are not excluded on financial grounds from enjoying access to improved water supply and sanitation. Donors insist on "financial sustainability" for investments in infrastructure and social services, requiring that the users bear all operating costs. In other words, the poors are excluded from such project.

    slum in Dhaka poor waiting for help

    I have travelled hundreds of villages in Bangladesh and found most of the developing projects do not reach the poor but the name of "poor" is trade name. Government or International Aid Agencies have hardly any project to improve living quality of the poorest population of the country. Like many other cities of the developing countries the population of Dhaka city increased by almost 1000 per cent in seven years (1974-2000) due to the increasing developments of landless peasants

    The existing projects mainly concern for the betterment of a privileged section of the population, whereas the poor continue to be the enemy, misunderstood and blamed for circumstances beyond their control. Development policy in Bangladesh has emphasised urban-based, modern-sector industrial development at the expense of the rural majority; indeed, sector budget allocations to agriculture and rural development have steadily declined since 1974.

    Faced with an estimated 786 million hungry people in the world, cheerleaders for our social order have an easy solution: we will grow more food through the magic of chemicals and genetic engineering. For those who remember the original "Green Revolution" promise to end hunger through miracle seeds, this call for "Green Revolution II" should ring hollow. Yet Monsanto, Novartis, AgrEvo, DuPont, and other chemical companies who are reinventing themselves as biotechnology companies, together with the World Bank and other international agencies, would have the world's anti-hunger energies aimed down the path of more agrochemicals and genetically modified crops. This second Green Revolution, they tell us, will save the world from hunger and starvation if we just allow these various companies, spurred by the free market, to do their magic.

    What may we know of the secret sorrow of the poor?

    The poor pay for water on average 12 times more

    The poor in the developing world pay on average 12 times more for water than people connected to municipal systems, according to an ongoing study by the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century. While the rich benefit from subsidized treated piped water, water vendors charge the poor up to 100 times more for water of doubtful quality in some cities such as Port-au-Prince, Haiti and Nouakchot, Mauritania. We know from econometric analysis, that the poorest suffer the most from arsenicosis in Bangladesh (WHO, 2000). Most arsenic patient of Bangladesh is still drinking arsenic contaminated water and can hardly afford any medical treatment or piped water.

    The poorest can barely afford to offer money or time for a village committee or maintenance of installations. Therefore, local communities allow each of the families that are making use of the water resource to contribute an amount they can afford. Sometimes, contribution from 30 families for a deep tubewell of Tk. 5000 varies between Tk. 0 and Tk. 800 or piped water

    . Relatively well-off people who can afford to contribute a large amount of money or to become a member of a village committee, are able to derive more privileges from their increased status. Despite the quite impressive network of DPHE thana, district and division offices, these departments are hopelessly subject to inefficiency, bureaucracy, corruption, lack of capacity, lack of capabilities, lack of professionals etc.

    The WB functions best in countries like ours because we have no performance audits, no accountability, extreme crony corruption and, to be honest, inadequate mental faculties to challenge them. Those who have chase them for assignments. And so everyone has a stake in the World Bank.. What became obvious was the extreme contempt in which the official technocrats and bureaucrats held ordinary people.

    The entire idea of development in Bangladesh is based on the GO-NGO co-operation model and the people have little role to play in this. NGOs are generically fund seekers and now provider of employment. Most of them have almost no reality beyond this. And this generally grovelling bunch conveniently represents the public face in the eyes of the donors who ultimately decide policies. Not because they want to but because they have to. The ability of the national counterparts is so low that they would not be able to formulate a policy without donor support. They are unable to disagree either because that might mean fund cuts. So it all ends up in the same basket (Afsan Chowdhury, 2002).

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    2.Examples Bangladesh

    The government and the World Bank sign an agreement on June 30, 2004, for a $40-million grant for providing safe piped drinking water in arsenic-prone rural areas. Economic Relations Division Secretary Mirza Tasadduk Hossain Beg and acting World Bank country director David Hubert will sign the agreement. The grant will be used for the $55-million Bangladesh Water Supply Programme Project to supply piped water to around 300 villages and point source water supply to around 200 villages. The government, the private sector and community contributors will provide $15 million - the rest of the fund.

    Villagers to pay 20 per cent of the project cost

    The villagers who had taken the water connections paid 20 per cent of the project cost of around Tk 30 lakh in the form of a fee of Tk 2,500 for each connection. Each household has to pay Tk 60 for unlimited use of water in a month to a committee formed by the villagers. Piped water is being supplied by extracting water through a deep aquifer tube-well which extracts arsenic free water from around 800 feet below the surface.

    However, more than half of the villagers are yet to take water connections as they "were unable to pay Tk 2,500 as connection fee". A bank official said in the upcoming project, water connections might be provided by the NGOs and later they would adjust the amount with the water bills.

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    2. 1. Community Participation

    Arsenic mitigation activities by international organizations and major NGOs are generally undertaken jointly with a local NGO active in one particular village. The local NGO encourages villagers to form a committee so that the committee may act as the principal body to organize mitigation work.

    According to AAN experience, members of such a committee are decided among the village leaders. One of the main functions of the committee is to collect funds to operate and maintain a newly installed option of alternative source of safe water. The running of the fund including the management of money is under the supervision of the local NGO during the initial stages. The committee needs some experience to become an independent running organization.

    In practice, it is seen that only the rich becomes the member. In most cases 10 members selected from their family or friends and others are not allowed to collect water. We found in Fursa, Kanaipur Union, Village Tambulkhana dug wells and a deep tube well are constructed by SIDA/BRDB, although tube wells contain arsenic far below Bangladesh standard. The poor is unable to pay Tk. 3000-5000.In Noakhali we also found deep tube wells are sunk inside the house who pays Tk. 5000. Many complain that they do not use the water because it is saline and tastes after cow dung!

    Rich Don't Allow Poor to Collect Water

    well-protected by wallWe were very surprised and shocked to see that an arsenic free water well was protected by white walls (picture) so that the poor can not take any water from here (Kuzurdia, Fariddpur). Immediate to this house we made a water well so that every one can carry safe water. We have made several water wells near the road side.

    Under Government or NGOs project one has to pay 2000-5000 Taka, whereas the poor can not pay. We have seen in Noakhali distric, where many arsenic free deep wells are constructed inside the house. This is regarded as a private property. But a deep tube well costs about 60, 000 - 100, 000 Taka of tax payers money.

    A five-year project --'DPHE-DANIDA Water Supply & Sanitation Components.'

    Dhaka Ahsania Mission (DAM), a national NGO, in collaboration with its selected partner NGOs has been empowered to select, motivate, and offer all necessary hygiene promotional services required before and after the installation of a tubewell including promoting low cost sanitary latrines. Danish International Development Assistance, DANIDA, has been providing such assistance under a grant through the DPHE to increase people's access to safe drinking water under a five-year project --'DPHE-DANIDA Water Supply & Sanitation Components.'

    It has a target of bringing 1.3 million people in the coastal districts under safe drinking water coverage by June 2005 and half its target has already been achieved, claimed the officials. But in reality the picture is different.

    lost leg-Arsenic-poisonedFourteen years old Suman used to go to school, but three months ago he had to drop out owing to failing health caused by arsenic poisoning. His left foot was amputated four years ago due to gangrene, while both his palms show symptoms of decaying with pus. There are blisters all over his hand and body which doctors diagnosed as arsenic poisoning caused by drinking of contaminated water for more than 10 years.Suman is among the thousands of inhabitants in Begumganj where survey shows over 90 per cent hand-pumped shallow tubewells used for lifting drinking water are contaminated by naturally occurring arsenic in groundwater. Most of the contaminated tubewells have been sealed off to avoid further health hazard, but Suman and his neighbours still drink from the same tubewell that cost his foot.

    Unfortunately, Suman is not on the list of the affected and uncared-for due to what many people view as an ineffective policy of the government. To receive a tubewell, the beneficiaries must make an advance payment of 10 per cent of the total costs of the tubewell. On an average the beneficiary--usually a group of about 50 people-- has to pay Tk 4,500 in advance, and only then installation would begin at a site selected earlier for convenience of all the participants.

    Suman cannot even apply for a government sanction for a tubewell because his unemployed family members cannot afford to make advance payments. There are many such 'poorest of the poor' families which badly need safe drinking water but have no money to participate in the process of installing a DPHE-supplied tubewell.

    Asked how the affected poor people like Suman's family could get tubewells, regional coordinator of the DAM Md Asaduzzaman said, "We are helpless. It is the policymakers who decide and we simply execute the plans. We cannot even ask

    According to Alamgir Hossain, an official of the Association for Community Health Services, a partner of the DAM, those who are not able to pay are not selected as a member of the beneficiary group. "We choose only those who can pay the full amount of Tk 4,500." Schoolboy Suman's left foot was amputated due to gangrene caused by arsenic contamination, which has now affected his entire body.

    Why do people die in arsenic poisoning?

    The contamination of wells with arsenic is one of the greatest environmental disasters being faced today and must rank as one of the worst in recent times. At the request of contacts in West Bengal I researched the matter and found a technology that can get rid of all traces of arsenic. Since then I have tried to mobilise public opinion to find finance for implementation and have also talked to the West Bengal Government, people and authorities in Bangladesh, US AID, UNICEF, DIFID, SIDA and other aid donors

    My own estimate is that one person is dying every 15 minutes and millions are suffering in illness. But very few politicians and bureaucrats live in the affected villages and the people dying are considered to be of no consequence.

    Worse still, the token efforts of the World Bank and other aid agencies has added obstacles to solving the problem. If the captain of the Titanic broadcast a May Day message, most of these people would have commissioned studies on iceberg flows and common sense home spun ways of avoiding icebergs rather than sending ships to take the passengers off (V. Chand, UK, 2003).

    The Poor Suffers

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    2. 2. Dhaka Slums

    Bangladesh has a very limited stock of known mineral resources (only natural gas is being extracted commercially), and the economy is heavily dependent on small-scale agriculture. Agriculture accounts for about 40 per cent of Bangladesh's GDP and about 60 per cent of employment. Landless small farmers and as well as urban informal groups constitute 50 per cent of Bangladesh's population. Fifty three per cent of rural population are virtually landless and the result of that a very large percentage of urban population live in slums. For example 30 per cent of the population (about 2 million) in Dhaka live in more than 1500 slums and squatter settlements, where density of settlements is over 6178 persons per hectare and per capita living space available is lower than one square meter

    The structural conditions of the shelters are one of the worst in the world. The settlements live without open space, streets, water, gas, electricity, water, sanitation and sewerage facilities. Since these settlements are illegal the Government or International Aid Agencies have hardly any project to improve living quality of the poorest population of the country. Like many other cities of the developing countries the population of Dhaka city increased by almost 200 per cent in seven years (1974-81) due to the increasing developments of landless peasants, and at present the population of the slum inhabitants have been increased dramatically.

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    2. 3. Water Projects

    In 1964, a 20-year master plan for water resources development was initiated, and after independence, the government endorsed this approach quite uncritically and took steps to carry the programme further. More than 8,200 kms of embankments were constructed under these projects.

    Repeatedly, the Bank and other "development" missions have noted the great potential for using ground water for domestic and agricultural needs and therefore advocated for its more intensive use. Many water projects, such as Brahmaputra right bank embankment project, Pabna project, Dakatia and Halda project, Barisal project, Ganges-Kobadak Kushtia project, Chenchuri and the Barnal, Salinpur-Bashukhali projects in the Khulna area, Surma-Baulai Haor and the Knowai River projects in Northeast region, River training, Chandpur riverbed stabilization project, Chilmari project, and Kurigram project came into being.

    " All these highly expensive huge structural measures could not save Bangladesh from disastrous floods in 1987 and again in 1988. Nevertheless, the water resources programmes were intensified and pursued with more rigour. The Bank continued to pursue similar projects. It went for a comprehensive programme to "control flood" and "water management."

    Despite all that has been done to make a country of free-flowing abundant water into one that is water-logged, it seems that the water sector has become an increasingly more lucrative field for profit making investment of corporate bodies and beneficiaries. To them, projects are not meant to solve the problems which lead to disaster, but are a permanent system of monitoring and studying the phenomenon that give connected parties a permanent way of making wealth. Floods, just like poverty, give them immense opportunity to ensure fat lives at home and abroad.

    The floods today in 2004, therefore, are both a product of the flood control projects and also a good reason to prepare more projects in similar line. With the money taken from people's pocket, the flow of water is blocked, rivers are destroyed, the overflow of water become disastrous, water-logging become permanent, and the results are all around us (Prof. A. Muhammad, Jahangirnagar University,27 July, 2004).

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    3. Strategy of the Supplying Industries from the North

    northPrivate sector companies working in water have made excessive profits in some of the poorest countries in the world by exploiting the twin evils of corruption and lack of knowledge. Alan Booker, former deputy director of Ofwat (the regulator in the privatized water industry in the United Kingdom), draws this conclusion based on his review of the working of water utility contracts in different parts of the world. Through the lack of knowledge of host governments in the developing world the contracts are often biased towards the contractor, Booker wrote in a column "Talk Back" in the May 1999 issue of Water and Environment International.

    In general such contracts have been negotiated with institutions incapable of supervising the performance and behaviour of the contractors. European companies in particular have developed robust marketing techniques, often playing on the endemic corruption in the host country and the influence greed can have. Even where the contractor is known to be generating levels of profit of around 50 percent greater than comparable contracts in Europe, it is impossible for the host country to share in outperformance, because of the terms of the concession contracts which last 25 years or longer.

    "Regrettably many long term concession contracts which are already in place in the water and wastewater sector will continue to be an economic drag on some of the poorest and most vulnerable economies in the world." (International Water and Sanitation Centre, Netherland, October, 1999).

    The imported technology with the high demand of water, fertilisers and pesticides a narrow gain of a few hundred dollars can be achieved. Most of the HYVs producers are also the leading multiorganizations of chemical industry - Sandoz, Upjohn, Limagrain, Cargill, Volvo, ICI, France Mais, Dekalb-Pfizer, BASF, Royal Dutch/Shell, ITT, and Ciba-Geigy, whereas only six are traditionally seed producers.

    The Royal Dutch/Shell is the highest producer of pesticides and at the same time is the largest seed producer of the world.In fact, the short and long term strategy of the supplying industry is to maximise the use of chemicals and use new biotechnique to broaden the applicability of pesticides. (Money et al.,1988). Chemical companies recognise that there is a bonanza awaiting manufacturers who can create seeds like herbicides. It is undoubted that "the green revolution" has opened the world wide market of the agrochemical industry.

    Green Revolution

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    4. Conclusion

    The Governments of this region have made commitment for a sustainable development, but in practice in collaboration with assistance from the industrial countries the opposite to it is occurring. The International Technical Assistance Programme of the Government of the Netherlands (1978) comments:

    A concentration on economic growth only benefited small groups in these societies, such as landlords, owners, managers in modernized industry and trade, and professional people and high officials in private and government circles. The contention that benefits of such a policy would automatically trickle down to large majorities proved to be untenable. On the contrary, it became clear that such policies widened still further the extremely large differences in the levels of living.

    The developed countries fail to carry conviction because they do not seek seriously and systematically to change their own structures, and profound changes in attitudes, life styles, and approaches that are taking place in the industrialized society.

    The tax payers of developed countries should be more aware of the projects in the developing countries and politically represent lobby for the sustainable development for the poorest group of the population - not after destroying environment introducing new technologies appropriate for environmental sustainability but allow developing countries to regain traditional spiritual, social and cultural heritage.

    The elite of most nations hold similar, Western ideas of about society, about Nature, and about consequent future direction of the planet. Universities in Bangladesh do not make any study or research on how to improve houses in the villages (90% of the population) that can stand flood or severe cyclone. Our ideas and decisions come from the city, and rarely filter down to villages in crisis. What we need to see happening is a reversal - an ecological sensibility that starts at the village level.

    The existing projects mainly concern for the betterment of a privileged section of the population, whereas the poor continue to be the enemy, misunderstood and blamed for circumstances beyond their control.

    If the goals of development of the developing countries remain the same as they are, or were, for the industrialised societies, then any new strategy of development, whether ecological or otherwise, might become no more than a mere modification of the present policies and trends rather than genuine trend. The developed countries fail to carry conviction because they do not seek seriously and systematically to change their own structures, and profound changes in attitudes, life styles, and approaches

    I could not find any real change in attitude at Stockholm's International Water Conference.Are we using the name of the "poorest" for our (elites from the north and south) own benefits?

    The entire idea of development in Bangladesh is based on the GO-NGO co-operation model and the people have little role to play in this. NGOs are generically fund seekers and now provider of employment. Most of them have almost no reality beyond this. And this generally grovelling bunch conveniently represents the public face in the eyes of the donors who ultimately decide policies.

    landless girlSulekha, Shakti, Mubarak, Narayan Shiel and thousands or millions of arsenic patients in Bangladesh displaced from their professional life can hardly afford arsenic free water, healthy food and have no access to expensive treatment or proper medical care. In Bangladesh almost 50 or more percent of population is landless farmers. Jasim Uddin writes about a young landless girl:

  • Field after field run along Green winds sway tender paddy shoots
    That spreads like open hair
    In it butterflies ornamented with wings…
    Mother earth smiles at her fertile pride.
    In this harvest Asmanis (landless people) have no claim.
    As worn out ribs hold together their stomachs
    They burn with hunger.

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    Last modified: September 27, 2007