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The use of alternative safe water options to mitigate the arsenic problem in Bangladesh: a community perspective

Md. JakariyaM.Sc. Thesis, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, Aug 2000


The aim here was to assess and identify the factors influencing community participation for the provided alternative safe water options. Household survey and focus group methods were used in two different villages in order to understand the dynamics of different response patterns of community participation.

In this chapter the survey findings are analyzed in relation to the following questions:

  • What are the factors responsible for community participation?

  • What are the barriers to community participation?

  • How far has community participation been achieved?

9.1 Factors responsible for community participation

It has been observed that the following general factors varied greatly when the results of the respondents were analyzed. From this analysis as well as from personal observations, the following general reasons can be identified behind a differential community response pattern of the people of the two villages. The reasons identified were: educational level, occupational structure, age of respondents, level of exposure to the outside world, exposure to the problem (i.e. visual symptoms of the problem), economic difference, specific and clear government policy, dependence on external support or grants (either from government or from elsewhere), media coverage and a constant motivational programme, physiographic condition (i.e. temperature, rainfall, surface water availability, etc.), and level of faith or trust in the information provided by local project workers.

The following is a diagrammatic view of the interaction between the variables responsible for community participation. Note that the power structure and leadership characteristics of community people play an important role when making decisions about their welfare.

Figure 13 : Variables in Community Decision Making (modified from Clark, T.N. 1973)

Here it is pointed out that this pattern of interaction was true of the period before the introduction of deep tube wells by DPHE in Kamarpara and the information on increasing the depth of existing tube wells provided by the local tube well masons in Vhagolpur. With the introduction of these innovations and ideas, people’s interest in the options waned.

Despite a number of dissimilarities (as mentioned above) among the people of the two villages, a common interest was displayed in their willingness to accept alternative safe water options. This attitude referred mostly to either deep tube wells or options that are cheaper, easier to operate and require less maintenance. The willingness to accept options and the dissimilarities in terms of attitude has produced different response patterns for community participation in the provided options. Other factors may be influencing these response patterns that need to be understood through further study. Because of the constraints of time and available resources it was not possible to cover all these aspects in detail.

9.2 Barriers to community participation and acceptance of alternative safe-water options

From an analysis of the survey findings and the results of the focus group discussions, as well as from personal field observations, the following general points were identified which impacted community participation in one way or other on the provided safe water options:

Government Policy

A clear government policy is considered to be one of the major influencing factors in implementing any development programme. Since all the alternative safe-water options were new and very little was known about them even to the policy-makers and implementers themselves, it was difficult for scientists and policy-makers to develop plans for certain mitigation options.

Poor economic conditions

Poor economic conditions were found to be an important factor behind the villagers not accepting some of the options. The current situation in the rural areas of Bangladesh is either that most of the villagers already have a tube well or that they are sharing tube wells with neighbors. At the same time it is true that getting water from tube wells is very easy because there is hardly any maintenance involved - whereas regular maintenance that is also a complex process is required in the case of all the provided options. This has made rural people reluctant to accept them.

Taste of water

The taste of water sourced from the provided options was different from the tube well water; this was an important factor behind the villagers’ not taking the options seriously. At the same time, it is to be noted that initially people were aware of the difference between water from deep and that from shallow tube wells - now, however, they are used to it. This attitude of the villagers clearly indicated that since they were familiar with the taste of ground water (through the use of shallow tube well water), the taste of deep tube well water was easily acceptable. People also mentioned that those who regularly drink water from deep tube wells usually do not like to drink water from any other sources.

Quality of water

In most cases the quality of pond water deteriorates particularly during the driest part of the year and therefore, villagers lost their trust of drinking water from PSFs and RWHs.

Physiographic variations

Rain for rainwater harvesters is available only for about nine and five months in Kamarpara and Vhagolpur respectively. Due to this physiographic variation, respondents particularly in Kamarpara were not optimistic about RWHs. Villagers also mentioned that this could be only a partial solution to their problem as rainwater is not available throughout the year. On the other hand, villagers believe that rainwater collected off a roof would be contaminated with bird droppings and other kinds of dirt and they were not eager to collect drinking water from this source.

Co-ordination between different stakeholders

The installation of deep tube wells in Kamarpara and the information regarding the sinking of deeper tube wells provided by the local masons in Vhagolpur made villagers particularly interested in these options. Due to this reason, the main intention of the project i.e. the acceptance of different options by the community, could not properly be achieved. Therefore, co-operation and co-ordination between different stakeholders are essential for the sustainable implementation of the project activities.

Reliability of the technical options

In many cases villagers expressed their concern about the validity of the provided options (particularly as regards the bacteriological condition of water and efficient removal of arsenic); later this was found negatively to affect the community response patterns to the options.

The community’s own judgment of problems

From the study it was observed that initially villagers believed arsenicosis to be a contagious and a hereditary disease; this perception no longer existed once they understood the facts - it was observed that people accepted this message within a short period of time. However, this does not mean that people accept the provided alternative safe water options. The long-term practice of drinking tube well water was found by the community to be convenient in terms of operation, ease of maintenance and cost-effectiveness; in addition, the irregular and slow spread of the disease did not help people perceive that there was a problem. These are some of the factors responsible for this low acceptance of the provided alternative safe water options by the community.

Complexity in the process of obtaining water

A more or less complex process is involved with all the provided options. For example, in the PSF, one has to pump water from a pond before taking water from the PSF. But in most cases people were not interested in pumping water. This situation in many cases ended up in a clash with caretakers who tried to enforce the system i.e. to pump a little water from the pond before taking water from the PSF. On the other hand, caretakers also mentioned that they do not want to involve themselves in a clash with villagers, as a result of which many of the PSFs were not being used by villagers.

9.3 How far has community participation and acceptance of the provided options been achieved?

This research was carried out in a BRAC-UNICEF-operated arsenic mitigation project area where a limited number of free demonstrations were provided to the communities. These options included only a very few people in each of the villages covered by the project. The intention was to provide ideas about the options to the rest of the villagers who would then decide which of these options were suitable for them. In the case of costly options these were demonstrated to the people of several villages at a time. Therefore, in many cases it was difficult to get respondents’ first-hand perceptions of these options; rather, they expressed their views and ideas based on hearsay or on a single visit to these options. This arrangement affected community participation particularly because of a lack of personal experience of the options and hence in most cases it was observed that people were not very interested in the options. Until and unless communities are consulted and involved in the different stages i.e. the selection, construction, operation and maintenance of options, it will be difficult to achieve long term sustainability of the safe water options.

A continuous motivational programme about the arsenic problem as well as some financial contribution from the villagers would be instrumental in order for the people to accept these alternative options. It has been observed from many development projects that without any kind of financial commitment or personal benefit, people did not feel a sense of ownership or interest about project activities and this resulted in less participation and maintenance.

Increasing the level of awareness is linked directly to the recovery of finances. Although people in the affected areas are mostly aware of the arsenic problem, generally the awareness is still low. The majority of the people in the project area are not affluent. The history of installing tube wells is not very long. When people suddenly came to know that their tube wells are no longer useful for drinking purposes due to the presence of arsenic, many of them became frustrated. Moreover, except for the three-kosher all the other options are completely new to the people of this area. Thus, the problem is that people with limited finances are reluctant to spend money on something that they do not feel is appropriate for them.

Co-ordination between government and NGOs is an important factor both for earning community trust and for the sustainable implementation of any development project. In this case a lack of co-ordination between government and BRAC was observed in the study villages that hampered the community’s acceptance of the provided options.


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