Long Read
26 June 2015

The challenge of ensuring safe drinking water and sanitation in Dhaka’s low-income communities

In Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, Dutch and Bangladeshi water utilities work together in the Water Operators Partnership. Simavi, together with Vitens Evides International and Dhaka Water Supply and Sewarage Authority (DWASA), is a member of this partnership. With the support of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (EKN) we are working together to improve water, sanitation and hygiene services and practices for 4,707 families (22,338 beneficiaries) in Dhaka’s slum areas in a sustainable way.


Dhaka is one of the fasting growing cities in the world. It currently has 12 million inhabitants and absorbs an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 migrants every year. About 28% of Dhaka’s total population (some 4 million people, almost as a many that live in Berlin) is poor and lives in slum and squatter areas, known as low-income communities.

The pressure from this fast-rising urban population presents DWASA with an ever-increasing demand to scale-up its operations and deliver water and sanitation services to the entire population.  However, the water supply, sanitation, wastewater and solid waste disposal practices in low-income communities  remain inadequate and unhygienic, leading to disease, infections and preventable deaths while perpetuating inequality.

Implementing an integrated WASH approach

The Water Operators Partnership aims to enhance DWASA’s operational performance and support DWASA in providing water and sanitation services to urban low-income communities. Vitens Evides International delivers technical assistance to DWASA, while Simavi’s role is to support the implementation of an integrated WASH approach in selected slum areas  in Dhaka.

Simavi wants to ensure access to, and safe use of, both water and sanitation services as both are vital for the structural improvement of basic health. Improved access alone is not sufficient to live and maintain a healthy life: it’s just as important to empower communities so they can actually utilise these services and practice hygiene behaviour.

Sustainable, replicable and up scalable services

One of the main goals of this partnership is to develop and demonstrate service models that are sustainable, replicable and up-scalable, and thereby assist DWASA in reaching its target of covering all  by the end of 2015. One example of these models is the Community Based Organisation (CBO). Together with our local partner DSK, Simavi mobilises, organises and empowers the community to form a CBO that assumes responsibility for managing the water and sanitation facilities. In this model, the CBO enters a contract with DWASA, in which DWASA ensures continuous water provision to the communities and the CBO ensures that water bills are paid to DWASA.

Challenges of working in slum areas

There are considerable challenges to be overcome if DWASA is to realise its goal of providing regular services to all low- income communities by the end of 2015. Not least because water supplies in low-income communities are often illegally arranged. Landlords make illegal connections to DWASA’s water network and sell this water  at high prices. Residents are therefore keen to subscribe to  legal equivalents – provided there is a continuous supply of these services – however, the costs of the current water tariff, combined with other fees (connection, reconnection, penalty, application fee, etc.) are just as prohibitively expensive.

The economic situation becomes more complicated as the DWASA bill collection rate from low-income communities mostly depends on the continued involvement of NGOs or social entrepreneurs. These support costs must be taken into account in DWASA’s business plan. Therefore it is important to help DWASA, and other WASH providers, to focus on low-income communities and make WASH accessible for them for a low price.

Until this happens, the current situation poses a serious threat to public health. A WSP study in 2013 revealed that 98% of untreated faecal sludge goes back to the open environments in Dhaka, resulting in a direct negative impact on people’s health. Increased collaborative efforts are essential  to enforce the laws prohibiting discharge of waste into the open environment and scale-up the current initiatives.

Moving forward

Simavi is committed to improve WASH services in Dhaka addressing these challenges. However, much has to be done. 90% of the people in Dhaka’s slums still live without WASH services and in great risk of disease. Empowering every inhabitant to understand the importance of hygienic behaviour practices – and adopting them – will be crucial in sustaining the results of any intervention. We hope the Dutch government will continue to recognise the urgency of the situation the poorest of the poor face every day.

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