Freshwater Action Network
– grassroots influencing on water and sanitation

L’eau est un droit, pas une marchandise

Guest blogger shares Shamim Ahmed, a development economist and the Equity & Inclusion Focal Person for WaterAid Bangladesh shares his views. This blog post first appeared as an article in the Daily Sun, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Is there anyone who would argue that water is a precious resource for existence? When we were school going kids, a common statement we used to hear from our seniors was ‘Panir moto shosta’ or ‘Joler moto khoroch korona’! Water was believed to be an abundant resource and a resource that had absolutely no or very little value. There were thousands of ponds in the villages, number of ditches was uncountable. In the city areas, there were lots of water points unregulated and anyone could go and collect water from those points without paying a single penny. Most of the time the taps in the water points were missing and nobody seemed caring about those. Nobody ever heard about a mineral water bottle that could be bought from a local grocery shop those days!

Even ten to twelve years back when mineral water bottles were commercially introduced in Bangladesh, people laughed at them and thought who is going to pay money for buying water. And now there is hardly any meeting or workshop where water would not be bought and served in a bottle. What happened to the country that was criss-crossed by rivers? First, have a look at the existing water resources of the world. About 70% of the earth's surface is water, but only 2.5% of it is freshwater, the rest being saline. Only 0.26% of all freshwater stock is globally available to us for use, but the quantity is quite enough for a world population of 6.4 billion.

The world's 263 trans-boundary lakes and river basins include the territory of 145 countries covering nearly half of the Earth's land surface. Due to unequal distribution of water resources and seasonal fluctuations in its availability, many countries are chronically water-stressed, while countries like Bangladesh suffer from severe seasonal variations in water supply. Water crisis in Bangladesh is also largely due to the unavailability of trans-border water from India. Bangladesh, being the lower-most riparian country of the three international river basins viz. the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Meghna, receives about 85% of the water every year. It receives about six times the required water during monsoon, while facing severe scarcity of water during dry season, receiving less than half of the requirement. These two extreme conditions are major impediments in the development activities of the country.

The growing need of the ever increasing population is another challenge. Millions of tube wells are extracting groundwater everyday to meet the need of drinking water of the rural population. On the other hand, 95% of the total ground water extraction is not for drinking water. Irrigation and other industrial purposes are being served by that water extraction. The ground water used for irrigation is not efficiently done. If scientific measures can be followed, up to 50% of the total ground water extraction could be reduced. This is still a blessing for the poor people that they can use ground water for drinking purpose without much hassle for existence.

But recently a public disclosure published by IFC in an English daily was quite threatening to the rights of the poor people. It says an Indian company with a local business house will set up 50 water plants in the rural areas of Bangladesh where they will use underground or surface water and will sell water to villagers – in pipe, can and in truck. There are enough reasons to claim that the social and environmental analysis done for this project was not robust and complete. The analysis remained silent about the environmental, ecological and social consequences of the withdrawal of huge amount of surface water from small sources in village areas or underground water. It is mentioned that if this new business model becomes successful, it will be implemented in all villages of the country in next 3-4 years after completion of the pilot. Here, no water modeling has been done keeping long term projection and ecological impact in perspective. We are therefore concerned about the long term impacts of the project. 

If the company draws such huge amount of water from small rivers or ponds, in village areas, those will dry up soon. If the company uses ground water, the water table ought to decline rapidly and the neighboring tube wells in the surrounding area will not get sufficient water for domestic or irrigation purpose. The quality of life as well as local economy will be jeopardized which has not been mentioned or addressed in the social and environmental analysis. Also use of some other terminologies which are either non-existent in Bangladesh or never heard of - like permission will be taken from “village authority”; disposal of sludge in the “village drain” indicate that the social and environment analysis was very superficial and did not rely upon the ground realities.

The proposed project contradicts not only with the existing policy and practices of the country; but also with the investments of the World Bank. The project even does not follow the Public-Private partnership (PPP) Guidelines of the Government of Bangladesh according to which private sector is encouraged to participate in water plants but ownership will belong to the Government of Bangladesh. The proposed project is fully commercial in nature and does not provide for ownership by the government or community or village people in Bangladesh. The World Bank invested in several projects in Dhaka WASA (Water and Sewerage Authority) and WASAs of other major cities where city dwellers get water at heavily subsidized rate and there is not much indication that water will be sold to the city dwellers even at cost recovery price. At the same time – IFC plans to invest with the vision that rural population who are mostly poor would be paying for their water. This is not sure how the investors rationalize such contradictory investments. The proposed investment is not pro-poor; rather it is inequitable and unjust and it is against the principles of equality and people’s right to natural resources as enshrined in the constitution. 

Again to be mentioned here that such privately operated pilot water supply projects in Bangladesh e.g. Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation Project and the more recent Bangladesh Water Supply Project funded by the World Bank have not been successful. Despite IFC’s positive evaluation and its plan to invest in equity in the proposed project, lot more ground work clearly needs to be undertaken. On an ethical and legal dimension – the proposed companies seem to have pre-supposed that by virtue of being the owner of a piece of land – anyone can draw any amount of under-ground water irrespective of the area of the water table underneath. At present, there may not be any specific law in Bangladesh with regard to the ownership of under-ground water except in major cities. However, any project of IFC should not be premised on the lacuna of law. Eminent economist Professor Dr. Wahiduddin Mahmud rightly said, “Even in the absence of a clear legal framework, underground water is in the nature of a “common resource property” the exploitation of which must primarily be in the interest of the community and not for commercial profit-making”.

Many national, international and community based organizations already came under the same umbrella to fight against this initiative without undertaking robust social, environmental, economic, ecological, constitutional, legal, ethical analysis; and analysis of equity and social justice. We want to say clearly and loudly that water is a right for the poor, not commodity.   


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