International World Water Day is held annually on 22 March as a means of focusing attention on the importance of freshwater and advocating for the sustainable management of freshwater resources.
Each year, World Water Day highlights a specific aspect of freshwater. In designating 2013 as the UN International Year of Water Cooperation, it recognizes that cooperation is essential to strike a balance between the different needs and priorities and share this precious resource equitably, using water as an instrument of peace. Promoting water cooperation implies an interdisciplinary approach bringing in cultural, educational and scientific factors, as well as religious, ethical, social, political, legal, institutional and economic dimensions.
The fulfilment of basic human needs, our environment, socio-economic development and poverty reduction are all heavily dependent on water. Good management of water is especially challenging due to some of its unique characteristics: it is unevenly distributed in time and space, the hydrological cycle is highly complex and perturbations have multiple effects. Rapid urbanization, pollution and climate change threaten the resource while demands for water are increasing in order to satisfy the needs of a growing world population, now at over seven billion people, for food production, energy, industrial and domestic uses. Water is a shared resource and its management needs to take into account a wide variety of conflicting interests. This provides opportunities for cooperation among users. The International Year of Water Cooperation is about what we will do in 2013 and beyond to promote cooperation in the water domain.
Where does Bangladesh stand in this auspicious day? Bangladesh launched its commitment to the target of ‘Water for All’ to be achieved by 2011 which subsequently followed by 2013. According to Joint Monitoring Report (JMP) 2012, Bangladesh has a population coverage of 81% using an improved drinking water sources. Safe drinking water has been ranked at low level of political priority. In last 4 years, Government’s investment remains very low with an average allocation that holds back the progress on health, education, gender and economic growth. On the other hand, the real allocation scenario suggests that sector investments are heavily urban biased and most allocation are channelled to the major cities, especially the capital. Allocation in rural areas in FY 2007-08, was three times less as compared to urban. The situation even worsens in FY 2010-11 when allocation for urban was eight times higher than the rural area. Similar was the trend for expenditure. Moreover, most of the allocation for safe drinking water were devoted to large scheme projects and was heavily biased towards capital constructions activities e.g. drainage, resulting in inadequate focus on safe drinking water. Since allocation are highly concentrated in cities, especially Dhaka (around 35% of national spending is in the capital), the fund is not being used for the people who need it most i.e. areas that geographically challenged e.g. haor, char, coastal belt and hills.
Groundwater arsenic contamination brought down the safe water coverage to 81%. Almost 20 million people are at risk of drinking Arsenic infested water. There has been no screening of arsenic contaminated water points since 2003 and no public sector project on Arsenic since 2007. Without a comprehensive national level arsenic mitigation program the situation will never be better and universal safe water coverage can never be achieved.
Water pollution is at very high risk in urban areas. Wastewater in industrial areas flows untreated into rivers, lakes and highly productive coastal zones, threatening health, food security and access to safe drinking and bathing water. Wastewater currently receives no treatment by concerned authority. 60 percentages of industrial wastage, 30 percentage of human sludge and 10 percentages of household wastages are main causes for river pollution in Bangladesh.
However, this is the prime time to ensure safe drinking water for all. Governments need to prioritise hard to reach low coverage areas like coastal belts, haor, chars and hills. Parliament needs to enact Water Act by which compulsorily ‘Khas Pond’ can to be allocated for poor people for the purpose of accessing in safe drinking water in rural and flood prone areas.
Needless to say, the success of the International Year of Water Cooperation and the World Water Day depends on the involvement of everyone!
Alim Bari works for WaterAid Bangladesh.