Bangladesh: Thinking Small Helped Dhaka Save Water

Extending water services to Dhaka’s poor took more than mere tinkering with the pipes.
Extending water services to Dhaka’s poor took more than mere tinkering with the pipes.

By Manoj Sharma

Over 5 million poor residents now enjoy 24/7 water supply, a model for South Asia.

I vividly recall attending a ceremony a few years back to celebrate the first time that residents of Korail, one of the largest slums in Dhaka, became connected to the municipal water supply. I was called upon to distribute water bills as part of the ceremony, and have never seen people so happy to pay for water!

The bills showed these people that, finally, they got access to a secure supply of clean water, available around the clock and with enough pressure to reach the second floor of a house. We might take this for granted, but it’s life-changing for the residents of Korail. In just six years, over five million have gained access to running water, which protects them from myriad diseases transmitted by the poor quality water sold by unauthorized vendors at exorbitant rates.

How did this happen? It comes down to innovative approaches to urban water management, extra accountability, and use of new technologies. By embracing change, the Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (DWASA) has become a model on how to cut water wastage, by cutting non-revenue water (NRW), for public water utilities in South Asia.

  DWASA is a model for public water utilities in South Asia

The recently concluded Dhaka Water Supply Sector Development Program, financed by ADB, helped to turn DWASA into one of a handful of South Asian urban water public utilities able to fully recover its operation and maintenance costs through tariffs. This was achieved through innovative approaches such as district metering areas (DMAs), performance-based contracts, and trenchless technology.

New pipes alone won’t save water

As early as 2011, it became clear to me that extending water services to Dhaka’s poor was going to take more than mere tinkering with the hardware (pipes, meters and pumps).I realized that the biggest challenge for water utilities in South Asia was the huge amount of water loss or NRW in their networks – over 50% of the total supply in most cities in the region. I saw that a utility would struggle to deliver 24-hour water supply to its consumers without first slashing NRW to a reasonable level of about 10%.

So, reducing NRW quickly became our number one priority. But this is easier said than done in South Asia. If curbing NRW were easy, most utilities would have done it by now. Just laying new pipes is not enough, and doesn’t make much if any difference to rates of water loss.

We then looked at the example of Manila, Philippines, where the entire urban water network is divided into small DMAs typically covering 1,000-2,000 connections hydraulically isolated or ring-fenced from the rest of the network. With a smaller area to inspect, it is much easier for utilities to identify leaks and replace pipes. Manila has cut down NRW to less than 10% from more than 60% in the late 1990s.

  District area metering reduced water loss to under 10% in Dhaka

We decided that Dhaka too could benefit from “thinking small” about water. The ADB project established and rehabilitated 47 DMAs, covering 2,456 kilometers of water distribution pipes. In six years NRW declined to less than 10% in most areas. DMAs were instrumental, but there were other important contributions. DWASA started paying contractors based on performance on NRW rather than just laying pipes, and introduced trenchless technology.

When the project started, trenchless technology was relatively new to South Asia’s urban water sector. DWASA was quick to realize its advantages over digging open-cut trenches. Nearly all the pipe-laying in Dhaka was done with horizontal directional drilling of small holes at 100-meter intervals, with minimal surface disruption.

Satisfied, empowered, connected customers

My experience in South Asia has taught me that infrastructure investments alone are insufficient for projects to deliver maximum impact. Sector reforms are equally important, and both must be aligned.

One crucial reform was boosting the capabilities of DWASA to effectively monitor the quality of the water. This allowed the utility to build trust with consumers. Progress has been made via new and upgraded laboratories with modern testing tools, chlorination units at critical locations like deep tube-wells, and better-trained staff. There is still a long way to go, but customers are definitely more satisfied now.

  Dhaka residents now feel empowered, happy to pay their water bills

Another challenge was convincing authorities to extend the water supply to a slum where the government feared most residents would not pay. DWASA carried out a successful pilot program with 1,000 connections for about 100,000 people in Korail.

The residents felt empowered. Not only were they happy to receive their water bills – they rarely missed payments.

A model for water utilities in South Asia

Finally, it is my firm belief that effective NRW management strategies are 50% dealing with pipes, meters and pumps, and 50% working with people and communities. I can say with confidence that any NRW management contract, no matter how well designed, will ultimately fail if implementation does not reach out to the community it serves.

A strong focus on community mobilization and public education programs, carried out in partnership with specialized NGOs, was crucial to DWASA’s success in NRW reduction and ensuring a reliable 24-hour water supply for residents, especially slum dwellers.

  Successful water projects need community mobilization, public education campaigns

Moving forward, the project’s sustainability will depend upon continuity of network management through the DMA approach, and effective governance systems. Dhaka’s success is closely watched by other South Asian cities, which have sent teams to study the program and determine if it can be replicated.

That is precisely our goal, and we are happy to share our lessons learned and best practices.