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OP-ED: Water solutions in the time of Covid-19

  • Published at 01:02 pm July 10th, 2020
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Representational photo Bigstock

The goal is to give communities ownership of health and nutrition

Now more than ever, access to clean water is essential for communities to stay healthy.

In the small community of Moutala in Kaliganj sub district, southwest Bangladesh, women, men, and water vendors collect and pay for water using ATM cards. The water comes from a reverse osmosis plant built by USAID’s Nobo Jatra activity, implemented by World Vision Bangladesh. The reverse osmosis technology removes dissolved salts, impurities, and contaminants from water, making it safe to drink.

Sabina Yeasmin is the president of the Water Management Committee for the Moutala Reverse Osmosis plant. Along with 12 other members (seven of whom are women), Sabina volunteers to supervise the reverse osmosis plant which supplies over 400 households, local government offices, and NGOs with safe drinking water. Critically, the Moutala Reverse Osmosis Plant has continued to supply safe drinking water even during the Covid-19 pandemic and in the aftermath of cyclone Amphan, which damaged many other water points in the area.

Born and raised in the area, Sabina still remembers the difficulties endured to access water. “Traditionally, families used to travel 1.5km to get drinking water from tube wells which were contaminated with iron and arsenic. Diarrhoea was common, especially for children,” says Sabina.

The southwest coast of Bangladesh is frequently referred to as ground zero for climate change. Cyclones, like the most recent Cyclone Amphan, and floods, are frequent, and groundwater salinity levels are high. A limited number of water options are actually feasible in this environment, and the systems are characterized by frequent breakdowns, prolonged repair delays, and contamination.

The absence of a locally-led and self-sustaining system for maintaining quality water service provision is a critical challenge. This has implications on the health, nutrition, and the resilience of families, particularly women and children.

Sustainable services

To address the need for sustainable rural water services, USAID’s Nobo Jatra project, implemented by World Vision Bangladesh, has been piloting 10 reverse osmosis plants with the goal of providing safe drinking water to marginalized households across four sub-districts in southwest Bangladesh.

Nobo Jatra’s approach is centred on a fee-based model using prepaid ATM cards, with water management committees, local government, and communities (who are the service users) as the driving force. In pursuing sustainability, Nobo Jatra’s approach is guided by practical experiences and careful consideration of the factors that have previously influenced the successes and failures of reverse osmosis plants in the area.

To start, Nobo Jatra realized that an optimistic idea was not enough to change mindsets. Though the reverse osmosis model is feasible for the saline and disaster prone environment, the concept of a fee-based model would have to resonate with the wider community and require people to change their behaviours and pay for water.

Water Management Committees play a critical role here by counselling neighbours and surrounding households on the importance of a fee-based system for a regular supply of safe water, which results in families that are healthier and stronger. Committee members also supervise each reverse osmosis plant, including a full-time paid plant operator who is on call for operation, maintenance, and repair.

Water management committees are also a bridge between the community, the union parishad, and the Department of Public Health Engineering. They are able to advocate at government forums for regular water quality testing of reverse osmosis plants, and also for budget allocations that take local water needs into account.

Given that past experience has shown that many water systems cease to function due to a lack of maintenance and repair, Nobo Jatra has prioritized a fee-based system. In doing so, Nobo Jatra has paved the way for sustained, quality service provision, which requires operation and maintenance costs that are financed by payments from water users.

A key intention in taking this systemic approach is to increase the chance of the reverse osmosis plants sustaining operations and not depending on external resources such as INGOs and donor funding. Using prepaid ATM cards, which can be recharged digitally by the plant operator, water users are able to pay for water as needed.

An encouraging pilot project

The reverse osmosis pilot project has so far been successful -- 10 plants are currently in operation, each plant providing safe drinking water per day to 400 households and local businesses. During the Covid-19 pandemic and in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan, which caused major damages to water sources, sales have increased in all 10 reverse osmosis plants.

World Vision staff and facilitators are continuously highlighting the importance of safe drinking water and encouraging communities and local businesses to use reliable water sources such as the reverse osmosis plants.

Even during the current pandemic, all 10 water management committees are active and engaged, supervising the plants, motivating communities to continue using the service, and encouraging new households and customers to buy water.

The committees are also exploring business models to further increase sales, whereby water vendors deliver water directly to homes, thus increasing the number of people accessing safe water and also limiting the time spent by households in collecting water.

While motivated by the success, sustaining quality services of reverse osmosis plants will require continued generation of operations and maintenance costs from water users and the possibility of tapping into private enterprise through local entrepreneurs.

USAID’s Nobo Jatra activity has successfully been piloting a water service model that is feasible and attuned to the local context of southwest Bangladesh. To sustain the effectiveness of the reverse osmosis plants shown so far, government allocation of resources for safe drinking water in Bangladesh’s southwest coastal areas, together with payments from water users, is critical.

The reverse osmosis pilot project is still ongoing and the results are intended to inform and influence the government of Bangladesh, private sector, and local development partners to scale up and replicate this locally appropriate approach which is proving successful even during a dynamic, evolving pandemic.

In doing so, the ultimate goal is to empower communities to take ownership of health, nutrition, and resilience for future generations. 

Saeqah Kabir is Senior Manager, Knowledge Management and Communications, Nobo Jatra, World Vision Bangladesh.

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