By Rajib Shaw
Bangladesh’s geographical location and land characteristics make it one of most hazard-prone countries in the world. Primarily consisting of low and flat land, with some hilly areas in the northeast and southeast, the country is one of the most climate vulnerable countries in the world. It has been frequently visited by a range of natural hazards throughout its history, including cyclones, floods, droughts, tornadoes, river bank erosion, high arsenic contents in ground water, waterlogging and salinity.
In Bangladesh, government, international agencies and NGOs are the primary actors in disaster management. While the responsibility for providing a framework of legal and institutional structures remains the government’s, over the years the roles of NGOs and donor communities have increased significantly. In addition, the private sector has potential to undertake activities that combine business interests with broader social concerns and needs.
Innovation has been part of community life in Bangladesh from its very inception, to help cope with daily hazards like water stress, slow-onset hazards like sea level rises and droughts, as well as fast-onset disasters like cyclones and floods. This article provides a specific example of community-driven innovation that also exemplifies the importance of multi-stakeholder partnerships.
The South western part of Bangladesh is prone to chronic arsenic contamination of ground water due to sub-surface geological conditions; excess salinity in ground water is thought to be widespread and generally attributed to land-use change, rising sea levels, and droughts due to changes in rainfall patterns. Thus, although the region is filled with water, there is a perpetual lack of safe drinking water (Figure 1).
During the past several cyclones, huge storm surges have also affected the surface water quality by making them saline, thereby posing additional stress. It is argued that high salinity in water has also been contributed by the sustained use of aquaculture, the pumping of a huge amount of ground water, and by the depletion of the water table. Scarcity of fresh water and saline inundation in coastal areas have severely impacted primary sources of livelihoods and supplementary incomes for rural households, including homestead gardening, poultry and animal husbandry.
Approach / Stakeholder participation
Concern Worldwide initiated a rainwater harvesting project in collaboration with a private company called Gazi Tank Company (GTC) to reduce risks from natural disasters and climate change. Activities include providing vulnerable households with storm-resilient houses, rainwater harvesting systems, and vegetable cultivation approaches to maintain livelihoods by reducing food insecurity. Rainwater harvesting systems were introduced under various government and non-government programs in order to provide arsenic-safe drinking water for the affected populations. Within a short period of time, water systems failed in many communities due to lack of proper maintenance and management. However, under the renewed rainwater-harvesting model, in collaboration between private companies and non-government partners, the technology has been identified as a potentially effective mode to maintain freshwater supply for drinking and homestead vegetable gardening based on the meteorological data in the areas.
Bangladesh has a relatively high amount of monsoon rainfall, with an annual average close to 2,000 mm per year. While most of the rainfall is concentrated during the months of May to September, rainwater availability in the months of April, May, September and October is also sufficient for cultivation and other needs. However, farmers are in dire need of water for cultivation for the months of November to March. Soil moisture in November is sufficient for cultivation and hence less additional water is needed. But unmet water requirements for vegetable cultivation in December and January are high.
The model has been designed to store rainwater during the crisis period that can permit a crop cycle. There are three key components:
- A rainwater harvesting system (Figure 2) allowing families to store water for the dry season and promoting drip irrigation for homestead vegetable cultivation (Figure 3);
- Improved access to safe drinking water providing enhanced nutritional security, especially for women and children;
- Salt-tolerant cultivation on poly-beds with moisture retention capacity increasing vegetable yields.
Three specific innovations are exemplified in the project:
Process Innovation: The establishment of a win-win partnership among the county’s biggest private conglomerate—the Gazi group, INGO (Concern Worldwide), local communities, and research institutes—represents a significant process innovation. This is one of the most successful and sustainable examples globally of private sector involvement in rural resilience building that is linked to the company’s core business rather than being a corporate social responsibility (CSR) activity. The partnership has helped GTC expand its rural market, which has now passed its gross sales in urban areas.
- Product innovation: GTC and its research partners developed specific materials used as a thin layer in the tank. These materials allow air flow, thereby protecting water in the tank from the growth of microbial organizations. Eventually, the stored water could be used for an even longer period to meet the needs in the dry months of the year.
- System innovation: To facilitate water contamination mapping and engage communities in the mapping process, Keio University developed a web based application (Figure 4) called Smartwater solutions (https://smartwatersolution.org). The application, which has been tested in the field, provides information on contamination as well as solutions to water issues. The data can be looked using Google Maps, allowing it to be used as a decision making tool for local governments seeking to better understand the needs and priorities of local communities on water issues.
This project can be considered as a successful model of creating business opportunities for the private sector and contributing to establishing community resilience. The project demonstrated the investment made by GTC in this project can be returned in three years. However, GTC had to compromise some of its profits in subsidies, offering a reduced price for tanks sold to NGOs and communities. Two major reasons GTC accepted this compromise were: 1) a strong intention and aspiration to contribute to changing local situations and improving living standards of local and vulnerable citizens; and 2) the opportunity to obtain greater publicity and visibility for their name and brand associated with the contribution.
Concern Worldwide considers the private sector an important partner in project planning and implementation, with the private sector additionally having the potential to gain benefits by participating in projects. Keio University also contributed to resolving water issues in Bangladesh by developing the mapping process and linking it to the local governments. With its strong community basis, this innovation has been successful due to the “win-win partnership” of different stakeholders. Continuous monitoring of the water-supply systems and training would be highly necessary to sustain this alternative, freshwater supply in coastal Bangladesh and other locations where communities are facing similar environmental issues.
Rajib Shaw is a professor in Keio University in Japan. He is also the Chair of the United Nations Science Technology Advisory Group on disaster risk reduction.