Publication: The uncertainties and inequalities of groundwater use in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, polluted and irregular surface water resources prompted a national shift to groundwater for both agricultural and household use in the 1960s and 1980s, respectively. About a decade ago, natural occurring arsenic was detected in the shallow groundwater wells, exposing an estimated 20-60 million people, and putting food security at risk. For over half a century, policy-makers have debated the measures to water management and conflicting access issues. Arsenic contamination and climate change now add new uncertainties that complicate a discussion on sustainable use of water resources. Moreover, this debate takes place at the (inter)national level with little involvement of local communities and with meagre results and inequitable implementation. This paper presents a systemic overview of the uncertainties and inequalities in distribution of resources and ecosystem services. It then reviews some of the outcomes of an adaptive management programme undertaken by the Arsenic Mitigation and Research Foundation over the past four years. The findings are framed by the concept of Conservation and Sustainable Use, particularly by the Addis Ababa Principles and Guidelines for the Sustainable use of Biodiversity. While these raise valid concerns in relation to equity, they remain to be informed by practical realities on the ground.

NOTE: This self-archived version is the original submission before review. For the final publication see: Rammelt, C. F. (2012). The uncertainties and inequalities of groundwater use in Bangladesh. In J. Merson, R. Cooney, & P. Brown (Eds.), Conservation in a Crowded World: Case studies from the Asia-Pacific (pp. 147–166). Sydney: UNSW Press.


This paper reflects on Conservation and Sustainable Use (CSU) in the context of water resources for the domestic and agricultural sectors in Bangladesh. CSU generally refers to use that does not lead to long-term decline of natural resources. For most sources of water, it implies withdrawal within the resource’s replenishment capacity. For some finite water sources, it means minimising unnecessary use or impacts. CSU is therefore not only a matter of taking favourable actions in the preservation of resources and ecosystem services, but also of refraining from harmful actions (Cooney 2007).

The matter of biophysical limits of water resources and their ecosystem services inevitable leads to questions about distribution, especially in a country with dense population and activity. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), signed by Bangladesh in 1992, led to the 2004 formulation of the Addis Ababa Principles and Guidelines for the Sustainable Use of Biodiversity (SCBD 2004). This document provides fourteen ‘practical principles’ – with several explicitly referring to matters of equity. CSU therefore calls for policies addressing inequality between the communities, sectors and nations that share a catchment area.

Without a proper clarification of the practical difficulties that go with it, people’s participation is usually recommended as the instrument to address these inequalities. Authors in the field of participatory development have long been aware of these challenges. Another lacuna is the lack of understanding of different forms on inequity. In discussions, matters of unequal distribution of income, services, resources and technology are often blurred. The easy way out has been to look merely at financial indicators. The Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (SCBD) broadens the perspective by focusing on inequality in the access to ecosystem services, but that is still only one facet. There are other inequalities in the ownership of natural resources and in the control or decision-making power over conservation, use, protection, and so on[1].

For the case study at hand, while equitable access is important, a more fundamental inequity relates to the power to decide over new developments affecting the water sector. In other words, who decides what actions are favourable or harmful, and what use should have priority? This paper looks at these questions in relation to water and Bangladesh.

Water resources

This subsection presents the available water resources in Bangladesh, both in terms of quantity and quality. Three types of resources are distinguished: rain, surface and groundwater.

Rain and surface water

Bangladesh is the outlet of the world’s largest delta, which is made up of the catchment areas of three major river systems flowing through China, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet: the Ganges (renamed Padma once it enters Bangladesh), Brahmaputra and Meghna (GBM). Three-quarters of all rainfall in the GBM basin occurs during the monsoon months from June to November, much of which discharges into Bangladesh. In combination with concentrated rainfall in the country itself, and its typically flat topography, slowly rising monsoon floods affect up to one third of the cultivable land in a normal year (Map 1). The flood regime also includes flash floods, local rainfall floods and coastal floods. Another reality is one of seasonal shortages and droughts, which are further compounded by water diversion in neighbouring countries. All over Bangladesh, surface water bodies dry out, and water is only available in parts of the river system sustained by groundwater outflow (Arthur and McNicoll 1978; UNEP 2001; Islam 2002; Banglapedia 2008; ICID 2008).


Map 1 – Flood affected areas (for a typical year and for 1998). Adapted from Arthur and McNicoll (1978) and Banglapedia (2008).


Map 2 – Loss of land due to future sea level rise (1 m and 3 m). Adapted from Titus (1990).

The ‘normal’ flood pattern is said to have been destabilised as a result of systemic changes in the watershed, such as deforestation in Nepal and Assam; increased snow-melt from the Himalayas as a result of climate change; and sea-level rise from the same cause, which impedes drainage in the delta (Wood 1999; Clarke 2003). There is no evidence that the frequency of extreme flooding has increased since 1950, but there is indication that the areal extent has enlarged (Höfer and Messerli 2006). In 1989, about 60% of the geographical area was flooded; in 1998, about 68% (see Map 1) (Abeygunawardena, Vyas et al. 2003). There is no certainty about how rainfall patterns will change with climate change, but increased temporal variability seems guaranteed (Shah 2009). The frequency of storms is also expected to increase. Bangladesh’s low-lying topography combined with sea level rise will allow storm surges to push further inland, and will result in salt-water contamination of freshwater estuaries (Inman 2009). Along the coast, an estimated 10-20% of the land might be lost due to sea-level rise (Map 2) (Titus 1990; UNEP 2001; Watson 2001). It has been suggested that the total of people at risk could be 26 million (Myers 1997). However, there is no consensus on this issue. Similar predictions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2001; IPCC 2007) have recently been criticised for exaggerating the impacts (Wasimi 2009; Alam 2010).

Bangladesh is heavily reliant on its neighbours to release adequate quantities of water. Over 90% of the rivers that eventually flow into Bangladesh originate from riparian states (Khan 1993; Faisal 2002; ADB 2007). The climatic extremes have prompted a number of far-reaching infrastructure developments in the GBM basin. For example, since 1975, the Farakka barrage diverts Ganges water to supply the port of Calcutta with water flow (Hossain 1981). Despite the Indian claim that the Farakka barrage would have practically no effect at all, it is said to have halved dry-season water flows of the Padma in Bangladesh (Faisal 2002). The curtailed dry season flow is felt as far as Bangladesh’s coastal zone, where salt water advances, affecting agriculture, industry and ecosystems, such as the Sunderbans – the largest mangrove forest in the world (Clarke 2003). Similarly, the planned Indian River Linking Project will divert water towards the southeastern and southwestern drought prone areas of India and is expected to have serious impacts in downstream Bangladesh (Yasmin 2004; Pearce 2006a). Next to these large-scale infrastructures, thousands of smaller dams along the Indian-Bangladeshi border also have an impact.

Regarding water quality, pollutants originate from local agricultural, industrial, household and municipal sources. Surface water picks up and carries along germs and unhealthy detritus as it flows through heavily populated areas. Dhaka treats only 10% of its wastewater, and no industrial wastewater is currently treated in the country (ADB 2007). Urbanisation and industrialisation in upper river states have their impact on water quality in Bangladesh as well. For example, nearly 1,600 million litres of raw municipal sewage, industrial effluent and agricultural run-off are discharged into the Ganges every day as it flows through the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal (Faisal 2002). This environment has lead to the spread of diseases, such as typhoid, cholera, dysentery, pneumonia, tuberculosis and malaria (WHO 2004). The World Health Organisation lists the following three major surface water hazards: toxins from cyanobacteria; pathogens from human and animal faeces; and chemical contaminants from agricultural/industrial pollution (Howard 2003).


In Bangladesh, the aquifers have been categorised as deep or shallow, and are generally separated by an impermeable clay aquitard[2]. There is only limited understanding of availability and recharge patterns of the deep aquifer (Bruining, Ahmed et al. 2008; Burgess, Hoque et al. 2010). Groundwater in the shallow aquifer is available throughout the year but the water table fluctuates both with the natural and the agricultural seasons. Shallow groundwater availability is also affected by systemic changes in the GBM basin. Since part of the natural groundwater recharge occurs in areas with vegetative cover, such as forests, deforestation in the basin may reduce infiltration rates from natural precipitation and thus reduce recharge, for example. To the extent that climate change results in spatial and temporal changes in precipitation, it will significantly influence natural recharge of groundwater. Finally, as Himalayan snow-melt-based run-off will increase, its contribution to recharge in the Indo-Gangetic shallow aquifer system may also increase. However, a great deal of this may end up as ‘rejected recharge’ and enhance river flows and intensify the flash flood proneness of eastern India and Bangladesh (Shah 2009).

Compared to surface water, groundwater is generally clear, odourless and cool. Most suspended impurities are removed from the surface water that percolates and filters through the sandy soils. While pathogenic microorganisms do not survive in the underground anaerobic conditions, in large parts of the delta, it is another contamination that threatens the use of groundwater resources.

Occurrences of arsenic poisoning in the Indian district of West Bengal neighbouring Bangladesh were first detected in 1983 (Saha 1996; Smith, Lingas et al. 2000; Chakraborti, Rahman et al. 2002). By 1987, the source was traced back to water from tube-wells[3] and it gradually became clear that larger areas of the delta were affected (Mandal, Roy Chowdhury et al. 1996; Dhar, Biswas et al. 1997; Chowdhury 2004). Globally, arsenic contamination of water is not unusual and can have a range of causes (Ng, Wang et al. 2003; Pearce 2006b; Amini, Abbaspour et al. 2008). In Bangladesh, West Bengal and Nepal – although the exact hydrological, geological and chemical phenomenon is not fully understood – the threat is ‘natural’ in origin; arsenic is found in the sediments deposited during the formation of the delta[4]. In India and Nepal millions of people are exposed, but it is in Bangladesh that the biggest calamity is taking place.

Arsenic contamination occurs in 61 of Bangladesh’ 64 districts. In total, an estimated 27% of the wells are contaminated with arsenic above the Bangladesh Drinking Water Standard (BDWS) of 50 ppb (BGS & MMD 1999; BGS & DPHE 2001; Ahmed 2005). Studies assert that 18 to 35 million people have been drinking this ‘slow poison’ for many years, based on the BDWS. Shifting from the BDWS to the World Health Organisation guideline of 10 ppb nearly doubles the population estimated to be at risk (Smith, Lingas et al. 2000). Models have indicated that arsenic contaminated sources could not only remain so for a very long time, but that there is even a probability of an increase in concentrations with time (BGS & MMD 1999; Ravenscroft, Burgess et al. 2005).

In general, arsenic concentrations peak in the shallow aquifers at depths of 20-70 m, but the depth, thickness and lateral continuity of aquifers varies, even within villages. Attempts to establish a ‘safe’ depth over larger areas are therefore misguided (BGS & DPHE 2001; JICA 2002; Geen, Ahmed et al. 2003; Ahmed 2005; Ahmed, Ahuja et al. 2006; Atkins, Hassan et al. 2007b). So far, deeper aquifers are not significantly affected by arsenic, but there are risks as will be discussed below. Bangladesh’ shallow groundwater is also naturally elevated in manganese, another constituent of increasing health concern because of its neurological effects (BGS & DPHE 2001). Finally, increasing salinity in shallow groundwater is a serious problem in the coastal districts. Higher sea levels as a result of climate change will worsen salt-water intrusion into freshwater coastal aquifers (Inman 2009).

Ecosystem services

Bangladesh’ rural population has always relied on an abundance of surface water during the rainy season and on various types of reservoirs to store water for the dry months. For centuries, farmers have used traditional surface water lifting methods to irrigate dry season crops near rivers, canals, ponds and other depressed water basins (Mandal 1987; Hamid 1993; Pol, Rammelt et al. 1997). Likewise, households have developed a wide range of practices to obtain, purify and preserve water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, gardening and sanitation (Hartmann and Boyce 1983; Chadwick, Soussan et al. 1998; Einwachter, Gorp et al. 2001; Hanchett 2006). Extreme weather conditions, water diversion, green revolution agriculture, industrial pollution, poor sanitation schemes, overpopulation and poor housing conditions have all been blamed for affecting the quantity and quality of surface water resources, and for rendering traditional farming and household methods obsolete.

Household water use

Tube-wells provided a fairly easy technique to obtain micro-biologically pure water. Although on a limited scale and only for agricultural purposes, the installation of hand tube-wells in East Bengal (nowadays Bangladesh) started as early as the 1920s (Caldwell, Caldwell et al. 2003). Their usage gradually extended to drinking water with the objective of unlocking the dependence on surface water. Entrusted with water supply and sanitation services, tube-wells were installed under the Directorate of Public Health Engineering (DPHE). Drilling costs were borne by the government, while materials were purchased with external support. USAID started as the primary donor and UNICEF took over as the main contributor in 1970 (Black 1990). Intending to speed up the rate of tube-well adoption, the DPHE slowly decentralised its network by establishing participation of local governments, i.e., union councils, which would identify drilling sites. Various other agencies besides USAID and UNICEF joined in by providing loans and establishing cost sharing procedures with rural communities.

Records about the specific period when most tube-wells were installed differ, but it is likely that sometime after the mid-1980s the number of shallow tube-wells jumped from less than 1 million to 6-11 million by the turn of the century (Rammelt 2009). Today, shallow tube-wells ‘meet’ the daily drinking water needs of 97% of the population (Ahmed 2005). Virtually every household owns one within the homestead. This ‘tube-well revolution’ is praised for having contributed to halving infant mortality in the 1960-1996 period (UNICEF 1998; WHO 2000), although there is disagreement about its impact relative to other factors conducive to the reduction of communicable diseases (WHO Black 1990; Caldwell, Caldwell et al. 2003; 2004).

Arsenic contamination limits what was originally thought of as an under-utilised ecological service. In 2005, the number of identified arsenicosis patients was reported to be around 10,000 in Bangladesh (World Bank WSP 2005). The WHO (2004), however, estimates the number of cases of skin lesions related to drinking water in Bangladesh at 1.5 million. Other findings suggest that arsenic-related diseases currently cause more than 9,000 deaths per year (Lokuge, Smith et al. 2004). If nothing changes, the World Bank projects the number of people who will die, or will become unable to work in the next 10 years to be approximately 50,000 per year, and increasing by that number each year (World Bank WSP 2005). To evaluate this data, one must take into account the lack of widespread diagnosis programmes and supporting institutions in rural Bangladesh, and the probability that a considerable number of affected people remain undetected. Moreover, these figures could increase when taking into account the additional poisoning by arsenic-irrigated food (Huq and Naidu 2004; Huq, Joardar et al. 2006).

Agricultural water use

A second significant expansion occurred with the drawing of groundwater for irrigation. As mentioned, the first shallow tube-wells appeared in the 1920s, but only sparsely. For centuries, traditional irrigation practices in the delta drew from surface water bodies. Farmers relied of broad shallow canals that carried river water to the land. Water was then distributed by means of cuts in the banks, which were closed when the flood season had passed (Willcocks 1930). Large-scale irrigation did not emerge until the first half of the 20th century and mostly spread since the 1950s (ICID 2008). It was based on large permanent networks of embankments, sluice gates and canals, now known as Flood Control, Drainage and Irrigation (FCDI) systems. These aim to reduce the depth of flooding or eliminate untimely floods in order to protect an increasingly input intensive agriculture. While flood control has had considerable impacts, the ‘Irrigation’ part of FCDI efforts has had much less effect. By the late 1990s, surface water irrigation through gravity canals covered only 10% of the total irrigated area; another 20% by low lift pumps and traditional bucket-lift methods. The remaining 70% was covered by groundwater irrigation (BGS and DPHE 2001; Ahmed 2005).

This agricultural shift away from surface water gained momentum in the mid-1970s with the sinking of smaller-capacity irrigation shallow tube-wells, which continued until the mid-1980s. The installation of larger-capacity deep tube-wells began in the late 1960s (Hamid 1993). Be it due to climate change, upstream dams, neglected infrastructure, or excessive withdrawal during the dry season, surface water resources started declining. Many argued that adequate groundwater was available and could relieve dependence on irregular surface water. This position was particularly strong during the green revolution and triggered a fast growth in the number of deep and shallow tube-wells sold to farmers (Vylder 1982; Haq 1989; Pitman 1993).

The application of contaminated groundwater for irrigation poses a threat to food security. While the most toxic form of arsenic ingestion is through drinking water, certain fruits and vegetables take up some of the arsenic from irrigation water leading to another path for arsenic poisoning (Huq and Naidu 2004). The extent of this problem is as yet unclear. According to Chakraborti (2002), a third of the total amount of arsenic entering the body comes from arsenic affected food items. Williams, Price et al. (2005) claim arsenic in rice alone contributes 40% of total arsenic ingestion. Some discrepancy may stem from the difference between concentrations of arsenic in the dry food itself or the higher doses of arsenic due to boiling with arsenic contaminated water. Others argue that the threat is not as serious and that it does not outweigh the benefits of eating the arsenic contaminated food. Finally, arsenic accumulates in the topsoil due to irrigation with contaminated water (Huq and Naidu 2004), and according to the FAO, some areas have reached toxic levels, which starts to affect crop yields (2006).


Bangladesh saw two major expansions in groundwater use in the course of the 20th century: the first started in the 1950s and peaked in the late 1980s for domestic water supply and sanitation; the second began modestly in the 1920s and picked-up pace in the 1970s for the agricultural sector. The current distribution of freshwater withdrawal for domestic and agricultural use is 3% and 96% respectively; the remaining 1% for industrial use (CIA 2010). By far the largest share is currently extracted from shallow depths: 92% for the domestic sector (Caldwell, Caldwell et al. 2003) and 81% for the agricultural sector (BGS and DPHE 2001; ICID 2008), and the rest from deeper aquifers (Chart 1).


Chart 1 – Distribution of groundwater use.

These major shifts to shallow groundwater bring with them a new range of risks. Arsenic contamination of shallow groundwater seriously undermines ecosystem services in both sectors. Among the different technical solutions to the problem, deep tube-wells are the most widely accepted (World Bank 2004; Ahmed, Ahuja et al. 2006), partly because their use is identical to that of the familiar shallow tube-well. To cover larger communities, organisations are attempting to implement these as community-based water supplies, or as a supply for larger piped-water systems. This strategy raises two broad interrelated classes of risks; one is physical (geological and technological) and the other is social (political, institutional and cultural).

Physical risks

At present, the shallow and deep aquifer systems are isolated as a result of one or both of the following conditions: (1) the aquitard creates an hydraulic barrier and separate the two, or (2) groundwater flow regimes are such that current recharge does not reach deeper aquifers (Aggarwal, Basu et al. 2002). While most deep tube-wells are safe at present, large-scale drilling of deep tube-wells could compromise the aquitard’s impermeability (Figure 1). The most serious threat, however, is believed to stem from the massive extraction of deep groundwater (Burgess, Burren et al. 2002; World Bank WSP 2005; Burgess, Hoque et al. 2010). This could elicit two mechanisms: the first is in situ release and the second is transferred arsenic from elsewhere (Bruining, Ahmed et al. 2008). There is no consensus, but the overall impression is that deep pumping by small-diameter hand tube-wells for domestic supply would only have a minimal effect (Burgess, Hoque et al. 2010). On the other hand, while currently mostly based on shallow groundwater, the relatively high extraction rate for irrigation might elicit these mechanisms if it was to shift to deep groundwater. In the coastal region, deep pumping may induce a similar infiltration of saline groundwater, which could precede the transfer of arsenic at deep wells (Ibid.).


Figure 1 – Possible mechanisms of contamination of deep tube-wells (Bruining, Ahmed et al. 2008).

Under natural conditions the groundwater system is in equilibrium. Shallow groundwater is recharged with a residence time of less than 100 years, as a result of infiltration and seepage from rain- and surface water in the GBM basin. Groundwater is naturally discharged through the emergence into streambeds, drainage into the Bay of Bengal and evapotranspiration in the dry season. Deforestation and changing rainfall patterns due to climate change are affecting this equilibrium. Other variables that are likely to change due to climate change are temperature, evaporation, sea water level, river flow, soil moisture and drought. All of these variables will influence the geo-chemistry, the intrusion of seawater and the release processes of naturally occurring hazardous compounds, such as arsenic, aluminium and fluoride (Bruining, Schotting et al. 2009).

With groundwater extraction through shallow tube-wells, additional recharge will occur to balance withdrawal until the limit of potential recharge is reached (Pitman 1993). When irrigation with shallow tube-wells failed in parts of the Northwestern region of Bangladesh after the dry season of 1982, many saw this as a first warning that groundwater use would soon reach its natural limit (Sadeque 1996; Wood 1999). Others objected that such droughts occur perhaps once in every 20-30 years and that groundwater development should be encouraged (Pitman 1993). More recent claims again warn that the groundwater table is declining, causing shallow tube-wells to become non-operational in many parts of the country during the dry months (Crow and Sultana 2002; Rahman, Alam et al. 2007). If this indeed persists, a shift to deep tube-wells would not be surprising. Deep groundwater has a residence time of about 3000 years. There is potential, but its durability will depend on extraction rates (Aggarwal, Basu et al. 2002).

Social risks

Ideally, the physical risks of arsenic contamination of deep groundwater would have to be better understood before making substantial policy and financial investments (Aggarwal, Basu et al. 2002). However, the urgency of the situation may require going forward with deep tube-wells despite the risks. As long as this shift excludes irrigation with its high extraction rates, geological risks could to be minimised (Burgess, Hoque et al. 2010), at least on the short-term. These risks must however be considered in their political context. The potential health and economic threats posed by food and cash crops irrigated with arsenic contaminated water may prompt the authorities to develop deep groundwater irrigation ignoring the uncertainties (Rammelt 2009). The Addis Ababa Principles for Sustainable Use recommend “that the results of research inform and guide international, national policies and decisions” (SCBD 2004, p14), and to apply a precautionary approach in the face of uncertainty. Unfortunately, politics dominates when science equivocates (Hempel 1996). Past experiences in Bangladesh show how the development of water resources for agriculture overshadowed all other considerations, such as inland fisheries for domestic consumption (Pitman 1993).

Other social risks occur at the community level. In the past, the bartering of essential goods and services in village communities ensured greater levels of self-reliance for the group as a whole. Such interdependence was an essential coping strategy and social procedures were established to deal with potential conflicts. These old institutions have, at least partly, disappeared. The intention is not to idealise these; new types of economic and environmental plights have emerged, and one might need to look for strategies that go beyond the physical and social boundaries of a village. Nevertheless, a previously self-contained and self-reliant subsistence economy has given way to one dependent on inputs, credits, markets, and administrative support from outside[5]. “[M]ore modern, perhaps; more vulnerable, certainly” (Sen 1983, p150).

This trend is also visible in the water sector. Traditional community-based water institutions have largely dissolved. More prosperous villagers would share dug-wells (kua) with their neighbours. Families would join forces to dig up soil for building their houses on the small mounds that are still so typical of rural Bangladesh today. The resulting ponds would fill up with subsurface water and rainwater (Rammelt 2009). “The leading village landowner reserved special ponds for community drinking purposes, with enough water to last through the dry season” (Black 1990, p18-19). Sometimes, late in the dry season, when water levels dropped, people would excavate small waterholes in larger dried out ponds to concentrate the remaining water. This was organised as a joint responsibility (Rammelt 2009). More or less formal and permanent organisational structures were in charge of maintaining drinking water supplies and distributing the services. When the shift to household-based shallow tube-wells gained momentum, people began to abandon traditional water supplies, including their collective operation and maintenance procedures. With the arsenic crisis, an entirely new situation has emerged.

Today, the required arsenic mitigation technologies are generally more sophisticated and more expensive than a shallow tube-well. Communities could share the investments and maintenance costs; but this requires the establishment of local drinking water institutions, which might not be easy to set up in areas where social capital has eroded. It is also possible that the poor may not relate to the problem to begin with; arsenic might not be a priority when there are other more urgent sufferings. Community-based deep tube-wells might not compete with the proximity of private shallow tube-wells, for example. And even if people do feel the need, they may still not culturally accept the solutions. Finally, an important question on the long-term is whether the new village water supply institutions will have the capacity to shift to other technologies if deep tube-wells become contaminated.

Unequal access

There is a growing movement of international policies and norms governing issues of equity in access to natural resources. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), for example, proposes to “develop means of ensuring rights of access and methods for helping to ensure that the benefits derived from using components of biodiversity are equitably shared” (SCBD 2004, p14). Huge practical difficulties remain for applying these guidelines on different system levels[6].

Internationally, the relationship between Bangladesh and its neighbours is problematic. There is a long history of riparian disputes over the distribution of water resources in the GBM basin and the CBD offers little guidance in approaching such fundamental difficulties. Other conflicting water uses occur between the agricultural and household sectors within Bangladesh. The physical risks such as climate change and arsenic contamination are likely to exacerbate these (inter)national conflicts. Finally, major conflicts occur at the local level within each sector.

The Addis Ababa Principles for Sustainable Use state that resource users should participate in decisions about use of the resource, and suggest providing “adequate channels of negotiations so that potential conflicts arising from the participatory involvement of all people can be quickly and satisfactorily resolved” (SCBD 2004, p16). It does not explicitly refer to the long-established understanding that communities are neither homogenous nor harmonious, which presents serious practical difficulties in any participatory development programme[7] (Chambers 1997).

The poor, who form by far the largest section of the population, have least access to resources and are generally imprisoned in various poverty traps. This inhibits independent initiatives, reinforces dependencies, and makes them a particularly difficult group to reach in development programmes. Existing power relations and cultural factors often hamper participation of women and more generally the very poor. Any connection to the rural poor is at risk of being compromised by existing power structures and discriminatory networks. These affect both top-down and bottom-up initiatives in water resource management. Top-down approaches are funnelled downwards, through local government and NGOs, to primarily benefit affiliated local core groups in villages. When viewed from the bottom-up, the poor, being in a dependent position, have profound difficulties challenging the status quo. Village elites are in a better position to influence investments and access services provided by local institutions. These inequities have been seen in the past for both domestic and agricultural sectors, and can be seen again in today’s arsenic mitigation efforts.

Access to domestic tube-wells

At the outset of the DPHE/UNICEF programme in the 1970s, the community did not financially contribute to the sinking of domestic shallow tube-wells. Although the aim was to achieve quite the opposite, “the allocation of [domestic shallow] tube-wells mostly favoured the influential community, [and] as a result the program could not reach the low-income group in most cases” (Miah 1998, p1). In the course of time so-called ‘cost-sharing’ principles were adopted. An application form had to be signed by members of al least 10 families who, on paper, all contributed to the cost of sinking a tube-well. The person listed as the ‘Head of Community’ on the application form, often the most prominent and wealthiest among the applicants, was automatically designated as caretaker (Black 1990). In practice, he provided most or all of the necessary cash, and in return, he expected preferential treatment by having the tube-well installed close to, or even within, his homestead. Being a man of relatively greater means than his neighbours, “he was able either to ensure that the tube-well mechanic came promptly to repair a broken-down pump or to employ a local mistri [mechanic] to do the work instead” (Ibid. p30). Gradually, the tube-well became the caretaker’s private property.

Ultimately, the poor were left to purchase shallow-tube wells relying on their own limited capacity, which only became feasible when the production of hand pumps had expanded and prices had dropped (Hartmann and Boyce 1983; Black 1990).

Access to irrigation tube-wells

In the early stages of the green revolution, the Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC) – a public-sector agency – was given sole control over a large infusion of government-supplied subsidised resources: credit, equipment, improved seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and agricultural extension services under so-called Integrated Rural Development Programmes (Mandal 2002). It quickly became clear that those with power and influence, the ‘surplus’ farmers, enjoyed better access to the inputs. Others had to purchase these on the market at a much higher price. In 1985, the Bangladesh Planning Commission aimed to ensure a more equitable distribution of benefits through Agricultural Co-operative Societies of 25 to 50 farmers (Hamid 1993). However, the distribution of benefits through these co-operatives was not equitable either, as one had to pay to become a member (Arthur and McNicoll 1978; Hartmann and Boyce 1983).

In the 1970s and 1980s, financed by the World Bank, the Swedish and Canadian governments joined in and installed thousands of irrigation tube-wells in collaboration with the Bangladeshi government. On paper, these were intended to serve the co-operatives, but an evaluation by the Swedish International Development Authority (SIDA) concluded that the irrigation tube-wells had been installed on the land of the well-to-do farmers (Stroberg 1977). Looking at the details of the procedures, the SIDA evaluation noted fraud in hundreds of application forms where signatures were falsified, and stated that it would have been surprising had this not been the case (Ibid.). Officials with close ties to the elite monitored the procedures.

These programmes failed to create co-operatives independent of the local elite who could monopolise and re-lend the subsidised farming inputs or sell irrigation services (Stroberg 1977; Arthur and McNicoll 1978; Hartmann and Boyce 1983; Hamid 1993). The monopoly position of tube-well owners and caretakers was also used to gain support of the wealthy constituencies before local elections (Hartmann and Boyce 1983). This power structure continues to dominate the rural scene to this day (Toufique and Turton 2002; Rammelt 2009).

Access to arsenic mitigation technologies

With the need for new arsenic-free water supplies, comparable inequalities are starting to show in the access to both governmental and non-governmental arsenic mitigation programmes.

The largest initiative so far has been the World Bank funded Bangladesh Water Supply Program Project (BWSPP) (2005-2009), a follow-up of the Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation Water Supply Project (BAMWSP) (1998-2006). BAMWSP’s main achievement has been the nation-wide screening of shallow tube-wells, while BWSPP targeted the implementation of drinking water supplies. Progress of the BAMWSP remained slow throughout its course (News From Bangladesh 2002; Pearce 2006a). The World Bank is even reported to have considered withdrawing its investment (Atkins, Hassan et al. 2007a). The new BWSPP was launched with the intention to build on lessons learned, and was backed by a further US$40 million World Bank funding. The World Bank (2007) asserted that BWSPP also showed extremely slow progress, with only US$1 million disbursed after nearly three years.

In general, there has been little success resolving the arsenic crisis (News From Bangladesh 2002; Atkins, Hassan et al. 2007a). By 2006, water supplies installed under the National Policy for Arsenic Mitigation (NPAM) were said to have reached less than 14% of the population at risk (Ahmed, Ahuja et al. 2006). If that wasn’t bad enough, the number of people still exposed to arsenic is probably much higher because many have broken down within a year of so after their installation, or because the supplies are in reality not community-based, but appropriated by well-to-do villagers (AMRF & AITAM Asia Arsenic Network 1999; Crow and Sultana 2002; Hanchett 2006; 2007; 2007a; Atkins, Hassan et al. 2007a; Rammelt and Boes 2008; Rammelt 2009). Even the World Bank (2004, p23) admits that “[a]verage figures conceal the disparity in service access and distribution. Despite high rural water supply coverage, distribution of services has been inequitable.”

Under the earlier BAMWSP, 90% of the capital costs of a chosen water supply were to be covered by the programme, and the remainder by local communities in cash or in labour. The subsidised technologies were, in theory, granted to Community-Based Organisations (CBOs) and not to individuals. Requests were examined at the district-level and the installation monitored by the DPHE. The required amount was transferred to a bank account with the mandatory approval of the union chairman (World Bank 1998). Similarly, with BWSPP the provision of water services was channelled through Union Water Supply and Sanitation Committees. Communities were proposed to participate in site selection and make cash contributions. Operation and maintenance would become the responsibility of users; caretakers would undertake minor repairs and major repairs would be done by DPHE or private sector mechanics (World Bank 2004).

The World Bank assumes that “[i]nfluential drivers (Champions) and commitment to improve water and environmental sanitation related services … exist at local government levels” (World Bank WSP 2005a, p1), but this is not always the case. Local government officials tend to work with direct links to contractors, village elite and other union council members. In theory, the community is given the right to choose the technology and placement but, in practice, decisions are taken in such a way that the arsenic-free water supply ends up in, or very near the homestead of influential villagers. We have witnessed numerous cases in the districts of Jessore, Munshiganj, Kushtia and Gopalganj (Rammelt and Boes 2004; Rammelt 2009). One villager mentions: “In theory, we decided upon the placement of the water supply. In practice, it was the union chairman who installed it at the house of a friend”[8].

Government corruption is, however, not the only issue here; even if union level officials follow correct procedures, things can still go wrong at the community-level. Procedures are biased towards those who are familiar with public institutions and who are confident negotiators. Second, the poor have difficulty contributing their full share of the amounts required under cost-sharing arrangements (Hanchett 2006). We found instances where wealthy families collected signatures for deep tube-well application forms from their neighbours by offering to pay the full share of the contribution. In return, the community ‘agreed’ to have the deep tube-well installed on the property of the individual family, mirroring the same difficulties faced by earlier shallow tube-well programmes (Rammelt 2009).

NGOs are not immune to this problem either. We found many instances where deep tube-wells, pond sand filters and rainwater harvesting installations under various NGO projects ended up in the hands of wealthier households. In some cases we even saw how ‘community-based’ deep tube-wells were simply distributed to those who could afford to pay the 10,000 taka ‘community’ contribution (Rammelt 2009).

The injustice is compounded by funding agencies in a rush to install a predetermined number of water supplies. NGOs will tend to install drinking water supplies as fast as possible in order to meet the targets set, to a large extent, by donors, ‘umbrella’ NGOs or international agencies. These generally demand measurable outcomes and fixed project deadlines. The problem is compounded by bidding systems that introduce an atmosphere of competition and rush. The sense of urgency associated with the arsenic calamity does not help either. Fast implementation implies working with those households that can quickly contribute larger sums to cost-sharing schemes, provide a pond for a water filter system, or possess a site for a deep tube-well installation, for example.

A possible approach

The Addis Ababa Principles for Sustainable Use (SCBD 2004, p11) suggest the need for approaches “based on: (a) Science and traditional and local knowledge; (b) Iterative, timely and transparent feedback derived from monitoring the use, environmental, socio-economic impacts, and the status of the resource being used; and (c) Adjusting management based on timely feedback from the monitoring procedures”. Genuine attempts to address the arsenic crisis in this way seem to be lacking.

Since 1996, Delft University of Technology (TUD) in the Netherlands and a number of NGOs in Bangladesh have been running a student programme addressing various water management issues. The work has led to the formation of the Arsenic Mitigation and Research Foundation (AMRF). In collaboration with two local NGOs, AMRF has established community-based drinking water supplies in several arsenic-affected villages since 2005. Drawing from these experiences, we can begin to identify some of the steps required to implement participatory and sustainable water resource management projects. While the focus is on drinking water, the lessons are relevant to other sectors as well.

A conflict over access to resources is generally viewed as undesirable. However, the absence of conflict could also indicate severe marginalisation of individuals to such an extent that they do not even have the means to bring about a conflict. In her own words, one poor villager explains the problem: “80% of people are poor; they pull rickshaws, work as labourers and do all the small underpaid jobs. They usually do not get any assistance from government and NGOs while the 20% influential people somehow manage. With the installation of tube-wells, for example, these will go to the richer 20% who own most of the land. We stay poor and do not have the means to do anything alone, but if we unite, we can fight this”[9]. The objective of the AMRF programme is to vest ownership of the infrastructure (both technological and organisational) in the poor sections of community. Solidarity among the poor generally ensures that access to safe drinking water is also granted to the extremely poor – who normally have little or no time or money to contribute.

In order to set up the necessary community based drinking water supplies, we roughly follow three phases: surveying, organising and facilitating (Figure 2).


Figure 2 – Phases of implementation. Physical and social processes.

In a surveying phase, tube-wells are tested for arsenic in order to identify exposed communities, we carry out household surveys to identify poorer communities, and we diagnose potential arsenicosis patients. This leads to the selection of villages, and to an understanding of the local context.

In an organising phase, we work directly with the local communities. We assist them with the selection of a site and the installation of a safe water supply (usually a deep tube-well). Training is provided on arsenic and its risks, and village meetings are held to elect a ‘People’s Organisation’. The initial surveys help us understand the local power relations, and to ensure representation of the poor (because usually the rich dominate). We also distribute medicine to patients, and help them set-up vegetable gardens to improve their diets. This leads to the establishment of safe drinking water supplies and the provision of health support.

Many projects have failed to benefit the poor, because they are implemented in a hurry to meet the targets set by donor agencies. In doing so, organisations ignore essential steps (such as land selection or local elections). While essential, these steps are no guarantee. Many things can still go wrong in the long-term, and we should not suddenly stop, but must gradually reduce our direct involvement, which leads to a facilitating phase. Ultimately, the ‘People’s Organisation’ must monitor the water supply, and the community (through village volunteers for example) must monitor the ‘People’s Organisation’. We expect that this will improve the equitable use of groundwater resources for drinking water.

Concluding remarks

Some of the earlier mentioned physical and social risks with deep tube-wells can only properly be dealt with by well-established forms of social organisation, which will take time to develop. The bulk of drinking water projects unfortunately pay too little attention in facilitating their formation and monitoring their functioning. Donor agencies generally focus on quick and tangible results, and underestimate the slow, but crucial, social processes. The lesson is that if implemented quickly 30 deep tube wells will only serve 30 well-to-do families; if done properly 3 deep tube wells may serve 300 poor families.

The Addis Ababa Principles for Sustainable Use suggest that “[t]he needs of indigenous and local communities… should be reflected in the equitable distribution of the benefits from the use of those resources” (SCBD 2004, p18). Gaps remain in understanding the practical implications of this statement. It has been anticipated that the CBD’s programme will undergo substantial revision at the 10th Conference of Parties in 2010 in Nagoya, Japan. Improvements will require a stronger integration of experiences with community participation engagement in the discussions (Krueger 2009). This paper has hopefully presented some of the difficulties and prospects for implementing this principle in practice.


The ideas presented in this paper reflect my collaboration with Dr Masud Md. Zahed and Mr Palash Torfder, respectively of AITAM and PRIDE, as well as with Mr Jan Boes of AMRF. The paper also draws from research under the supervision of Dr John Merson and Dr Phillip Crisp. I would like to thank them for their contributions.


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[1] A framework for looking more broadly at these inequalities has been put forward in Rammelt 2009).

[2] Shallow aquifers lie between the surface and a depth varying generally from 100 m to 150 m. The aquitard is less than 2 m thick in the northwest and 50 m in the south. The deep aquifer occurs at a depth of 10-30 m in some northern parts of Bangladesh to around 300 m in the coastal area (Ahmed 2005).

[3] Steel or PVC tubes drilled down to 10-200 metres, fitted with a filter at one end, and a hand pump at the other.

[4] The Holocene deltaic sediments of Bengal produce aquifers comprised of sands, silts, and clays capped by layers of clay or silt and generate the highly reducing, anaerobic conditions that favour the mobilisation of arsenic. Arsenic is probably released from iron oxide as a result of microbiological reactions in sediments with an organic component (Ahmed, Imam et al. 1998; Nickson, McArthur et al. 1998; BGS and MMD 1999; Nickson, McArthur et al. 2000; BGS and DPHE 2001; Harvey, Swartz et al. 2002). This is a simplified description of complex processes that vary in different parts of the aquifer according to geology and hydrology (Atkins, Hassan et al. 2007b).

[5] Shaji Varkey, in this volume, discusses similar tensions between traditional survival strategies of the Adivasis in India versus the increasing marketing of natural resources.

[6] For example, Daniel Robinson, in this volume, deals with a case of inequality in benefit sharing between government and local communities.

[7] Examples of the type of political tensions that can emerge can be found in Gopa Kumar’s chapter in this volume on the cooperative management of non-timber resources in the Kerala Forests.

[8] Field notes 18-01-05.

[9] M. Begum personal communication 04-09-08.

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