Regulating rural drinking water services to manage risks and deliver safe water in Bangladesh

18th November 2020

Dr Alex Fischer (University of Oxford) and Professor Rob Hope (University of Oxford)

This blog discusses key findings from a journal article recently published in Global Environmental Change, as well as policy recommendations from a policy paper available in English and in Bangla.

We document the evolution of drinking water services in rural Bangladesh. The findings show how national policies have led to a thriving domestic private market driven by households’ private investment when installing tubewells and handpumps over the past 20 years. We update national estimates of the total number of tubewells by combining multiple surveys from different regions of Bangladesh.

We estimate that over nine million privately-managed, and unregulated tubewells were installed since 2005, after the discovery and policy response to naturally occurring arsenic. Between 2012 and 2017, we estimate up to 45 unregulated tubewells were installed privately for every publicly funded rural waterpoint. This scale of growth aligns to an observed 70% decrease in the real price of shallow tubewells installed by private market vendors between 1982 and 2017. We further observed that rural water preferences have shifted towards an emerging demand for drinking water supplied directly  to households. The increasing investment in deep tubewells, electric pumps and reverse osmosis plants, previously thought unaffordable to a majority of households, offers a strategic opportunity as a transition point for institutions to be redesigned to manage water-related risks.

This continued growth has implications for design of public policy and how government might regulate risks and allocate responsibilities to support progress towards safely-managed drinking water for everyone. Sustainable Development Goal 6.1 has shifted global policy towards delivering safely managed and reliable rural drinking water for all. National-level reporting on the multi-dimensional components embedded within the SDG 6.1 targets is revealing gaps in the current performance of rural water service providers and the limits of institutions. Countries including Bangladesh have seen their hard-won policy gains of reaching near universal access to improved drinking water be reversed under the SDG targets of water quality standards and ensuring reliable water supply and services.

The analysis in our academic paper extends previous studies by exploring how these household investments into water infrastructure have propelled a shift in risk-management responsibility away from the public sector, leaving households responsible for their own water quality safety and service reliability. These estimates of tubewell infrastructure investments across the country are significantly higher than those cited in national policy documents. This suggest that the total rural infrastructure stock is undercounted in national policy planning processes, thus potentially under-estimating population-level exposure to poor water quality. These policy documents do not fully recognize the changing risk profiles of households using millions of new untested water points.

In our policy paper, we provide a summary of the policy context and recommendations to recognize the increased risks facing an unregulated and unmonitored self-supply rural water service model. Recent policy research around the role of private financial capital in rural contexts suggests that privately managed systems are increasing in many regions of the world but have only recently been formally recognized within a small number of national planning frameworks and regulatory structures.

This indicates a policy gap for managing risks extending from privately funded and individually managed infrastructure. These household-managed systems that serve a limited number of users often remain outside existing regulatory systems and are overlooked by national monitoring systems, specifically in emerging market contexts. We identify the potential opportunities to leverage the identified consumer preferences into a performance-based service delivery model by blending public and private sector finance to address some of these current limitations.

Our key finding is that the significant private investment by rural households for on-site and improved water services could amplify progress to safely-managed drinking water. To ensure this happens, government must play a central role in monitoring risks and regulating responsibilities with separation of roles between policy, regulation and service delivery. Bangladesh has a unique opportunity to introduce and test professional service delivery models if the current review of national drinking water policy reform takes progressive steps to shift from building water infrastructure to delivering safe and reliable services to everyone.

Further reading:

Fischer, A. Hope, R., Manandhar, A., Hoque, S., Foster, T., Hakim, A., Islam, M.S., Bradley, D. (2020). Risky responsibilities for rural drinking water institutions: The case of unregulated self-supply in Bangladesh. Global Environmental Change, 65 (102152).

Fischer, A. Hope, R., Hoque, S., Hakim, A., Alam, M.M. (2020). Redistributing risk management responsibilities to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) for safely-managed drinking water in rural Bangladesh. REACH Policy Brief. [English or Bangla versions] 


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