by Jonathan Annis is a sanitation and innovation specialist with the USAID-funded WASHplus project (www.washplus.org). His views do not represent those of USAID or the U.S. Government.
I recently traveled to southeastern Bangladesh to support WASHplus’s local implementing partner WaterAid as it begins a multi-year project in the coastal belt. The coastal belt is a marshy delta formed by Himalayan sediments transported thousands of miles by an extensive river network that settle as they reach the Bay of Bengal. Surface water is ubiquitous, and flooding—from tidal flows, excessive rainfall, or cyclones—is an annual event. I had never been in an environment so waterlogged.
An estimated 70 percent of Bangladesh’s 150 million rural inhabitants use groundwater for drinking. Rural Bangladesh has an estimated 10 million shallow and deep tubewells. WaterAid estimates more than 80 percent of these have been installed by households without government subsidy.
The maturity and extensiveness of the self-supply service delivery model is astounding. Privately owned spare parts suppliers and pump vendors are commonplace in nearly every subdistrict or union throughout the coastal belt. Deep and shallow tubewells are most often fitted with a robust suction pump, known locally as the # 6, that easily lifts water from a static level of between 2–5 meters. Replacement parts are affordable; a local technician reported the average cost of a typical repair was less than 150 BDT or US $2.
Local drilling companies are equally as widespread. Deep tubewells are commonly drilled to between 250-320 meters (that is not a typo!) using manual methods for a cost of less than US $1,000 (including drilling, well components, and pump installation). The drilling method is really something to behold. Workers balance like acrobats on 8-10 meter high bamboo scaffolding to hoist a hose that injects water from a manually driven circulation pump into the hollow stem connected to a drill bit that is rotated continuously by two men. A team of 10 men can reach 300 meters in two to three days.
Yet despite having what seems like the ideal setting for sustainability, complications persist. Community water points, often funded by donors and aimed at the extremely poor (or hardcore poor as they are known in Bangladesh), frequently go unrepaired for long periods. Most families use private ponds for bathing and washing dishes, even though they often have access to a potable water point in their courtyard or a short walk away. Potable water apparently has little intrinsic value in the coastal belt, and when community water points break households typically either walk to the next pump or return to the pond.
Government regulation is another point of concern. The emergence of self-supply resulted from a combination of ideal hydrogeological conditions and perennial underfunding of the rural water sector. Annual budget expenditures for water supply are split 70/30 for urban and rural, though more that 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas. The explosion of self-supply since the mid-1970s has gone largely unregulated, and the high concentration of water points may have been an underlying factor of the arsenic and salinity problems detected in thousands of shallow wells beginning in the mid-1990s. As deep tubewells become more prevalent in areas like the coastal belt (an estimated 1 million have been installed throughout the country to date) history risks repeating itself. One community deep tubewell I visited, for example, was recently abandoned after a saline aquifer leeched into the deep water table. In such a case the well must be decommissioned to prevent localized salinity from spreading to other areas. This example supports the findings of USAID-funded research in eastern Madagascar indicating that regulation is critical for self-supply to be environmentally sustainable at scale.
To this point WASHplus is working with WaterAid to increase regulation of local government institutions, beginning with an asset inventory to register all the water points in a subdistrict followed by a permit system to document all new wells installed in each union. Eventually these measures will set the framework for periodic water quality and groundwater table monitoring to determine if the quality and capacity of the deep aquifer is being compromised. This WASHplus activity will also serve as a model for other unions and the Department of Public Health Engineering to ensure the self-supply approach is reaching its full potential without compromising the long-term health of the resource that is the key to its success.