Addressing water scarcity | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 26, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 04:50 PM, February 27, 2017


Addressing water scarcity

Is Bangladesh water scarce?

Is Bangladesh water secure?

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Is Bangladesh water sustainable?

For an issue advocate, an activist or an opportunist, answers to these questions may range from an overwhelming yes to an emphatic no. A pragmatist will most likely suggest: it depends!

Of course, it depends. But, it depends on what? Why (and how) do we get yes and no as answers for the same question? This is partly because of our search for certainty and clear-cut solution for problems we face. For simple problems, where cause-effect relationships are well understood, this search for a yes-no solution works very well. However, for complex problems, this certainty does not exist.      

Can we address ever the increasing supply-demand gap through the lens of water scarcity? Can we provide access of water to urban slums through the lens of water security? Can we develop adaptation and mitigation strategies for a changing climate through the lens of sustainability? What do these three problems have in common? In a colloquial sense, these problems are complex. But, what makes these problems complex? What do we need to address these problems for actionable outcome?

The Blind Men and the Elephant

These complex questions of water scarcity, security, and sustainability are in many ways a modern-day manifestation of The Blind Men and the Elephant, a timeless parable that originated centuries ago in the Indian Subcontinent and has since diffused worldwide.

In the tale, a group of blind men touch various parts of an elephant to learn what it is like. Each man feels one and only one part, such as the tusk or the tail, and upon discussing, they quickly discover that their individual experiences are in complete disagreement with one another.

The moral of the parable is simple: the elephant is a complex beast; thus, no one blind man can fully comprehend it through touching it once. To see the complete picture, any given blind man must rely not only on his own experience, but also on the experiences of others.

In the early 1970s, the leading cause of childhood mortality in Bangladesh was diarrheal diseases. Due to inadequate sanitation infrastructure, the untreated surface water that the majority of the population used for their daily needs was contaminated with a variety of disease-causing agents. To address this issue, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) initiated a project in 1972 to build shallow tube wells that provided clean water.

By 1980, over one million tube wells had been installed—a number that then grew 10-fold in the decade that followed. At the time, it was unknown to UNICEF that the same wells that prevented diarrheal disease so effectively in these rural Bangladeshi communities were also giving them arsenic poisoning.

Shallow tube wells, as we found out later, are prone to arsenic contamination. By the time symptoms started to appear in the 1980s, tube wells had already become the primary water source for millions of Bangladeshis – resulting in what the WHO has since called “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history”.

The shallow tube well project, as well as the testing and education campaign that followed nearly three decades later in 1999, serve as ill-fated examples of a metaphorical blind man's simple solutions to a complex problem.

In both 1972 and 1999, we failed to consider the experiences of the local population. Both the initial well installation project and the well painting campaign were designed for rural Bangladeshi communities instead of with them. As a result, we did not fully recognise the potential ramifications of either intervention – or how those ramifications would compound over time and marginalise users in the process.

Today, these communities still live with the negative impacts of these interventions, and like the elephant, providing access to safe water in rural Bangladesh has proven to be complex. Each intervention outlined above addressed whatever issue was most evident—first, under-five mortality and then, arsenic poisoning. However, by focusing solely on the immediate, context was disregarded and complexity was dismissed—and the people continue to feel the repercussions of this neglect. After all, just because the blind man only feels a tusk does not mean that the tail ceases to exist.

Our challenge is to acknowledge that we have discovered the tusk, but to also be aware that we may have missed the tail. We must be willing to consider and adopt interventions appropriate for particular contexts, because it is nearly impossible to find a simple and permanent solution to complex problems. We need to search and find contingent approaches to resolve complex water problems.

A search for the 18th Camel

In our search to address complex problems of our time, we need to reframe our Blind Men and the Elephant story to another age-old fable from the Middle East: The 18th Camel. A wealthy man left his herd of camels to his three sons, allocating half for the first, one-third for the middle, and one-ninth for the youngest son. The man owned 17 camels.

How can one divide 17 camels according to the father's wishes?

Killing all the camels and dividing the meat may be an optimal solution that could meet the requirements of the will, but it is not a desirable one, as the live camels are more valuable than their meat. One of the sons could concede a portion of his own inheritance to his brothers, but that wouldn't meet his own interests and would violate his father's will.

A dispute started among brothers; the feud became heated; cousins were no longer playing with each other; the families were not talking to each other. They couldn't find a mathematical solution that would meet the requirements of the will and the positions of each brother to get their “fair” share. The problem was unsolvable.

We need to continually assess context of the problem with a goal in mind: to logically order principles to best achieve them in practice. There are issues like agriculture versus aquaculture in the southwest that are subjected to deal-making while others like sustainability of Sundarbans or equitable access of water to local community are not.

In desperation, the brothers visited a wise woman in the neighbouring village. After hearing about the dispute, the woman agreed that it was a difficult problem; she would reflect on it, and advise them the next day. The next morning, the woman told the brothers she could not solve the problem, but she would give them her own camel, in hopes that it could help them resolve their problem and end the feud.

The brothers were puzzled, but pleased to have an additional camel, and began to walk home. While walking back home, they calculated how a herd of 18 camels might be divided. Half, or nine, would go to the oldest, the middle would get a third (six), and after the youngest received his ninth (two), there was still one more camel.

The brothers quickly realised the wisdom of the woman, and decided that they would return the 18th camel to its previous owner in thanks for helping them solve their problem.

Reframe the Blind Men and Elephant Story and search for the 18th Camel

Within the context of addressing complex problems of water scarcity, security and sustainability, we need to look for ways to seek creative resolutions for problems that involve competing needs, wants, and demands. Two key features may help us to find the 18th camel – a pathway for resolving these seemingly intractable problems: (a) the initial formulation of the problem may appear unsolvable; consequently, we need to engage in a problem-solving mode with a focus on mutual gains; (b) involving a third-party (think of the wise lady) may help reframe the problem to arrive at a mutually agreeable solution.

Where do we see evidence of an 18th Camel in addressing complex water problems?

Water apportionment for the Jordan (1994 Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace): (2) This agreement allows Jordan to store 20 mcm of water in Lake Tiberias (Kinneret) in the winter and have that amount transferred in the summer. The need for water is as much about timing as it is about quantity. The agreement further specifies “the quality of water supplied from one country to the other at any given location shall be equivalent to the quality of the water used from the same location by the supplying country” to address some of the trust concerns over the storage and transfer of shared water. Admittedly, this is a highly simplified example of years of negotiation and the details of the agreements. The groundwork for building trust and agreement may have developed over many informal problem-solving and joint fact finding sessions between Jordanian and Israeli stakeholders spanning the years between the “Johnston Plan” and the “Treaty of Peace”.

How do we find the 18th Camel to address complex water problems in Bangladesh?

Complex problems – addressing supply-demand gap in the dry season in southwestern region or providing equitable access of water in the slums of Dhaka or creating sustainable development pathways for a growing population in a changing climate – are connected with many competing and often conflicting values, interests, and tools. These problems can't be addressed either by dogmatic principles or by deal-making pragmatism.

Any intervention will require an attention to both principles and pragmatism. Principle without pragmatism is often not actionable; pragmatism without principle is not sustainable. We need to continually assess context of the problem with a goal in mind: to logically order principles to best achieve them in practice. There are issues like agriculture versus aquaculture in the southwest that are subjected to deal-making while others like sustainability of Sundarbans or equitable access of water to local community are not.

Not all principles need to be equally important in all situations. Yet, principles are important and can't be ignored completely irrespective of contexts. If we do, we fall into the slippery slope of end justifying the means. When we say, we will not compromise our principles to explain our opposition to a public policy, we are confounding two meanings of compromise. A pragmatic compromise – a settlement of differences in interests – is not the same as compromising one's guiding principles.  Compromise over interests is possible and actionable while compromise over principles is not sustainable.

This notion of principled pragmatism is what we need to address complex problems of our time. For example, water availability during the dry season may be the limiting factor to ensure access to water for rivers flowing from India to Bangladesh. Mismatches between values, choice of tools, and disparity in scales usually make water management decisions complex with no clear-cut solution.

In such situations, a principled pragmatic approach – that can address mismatch between values (Is water more important to keep a port functional than sustaining the Sundarbans?) or choice of tools (Is building the Ganges barrage better than implementing high efficiency irrigation systems?) – grounded in translating global norms in terms of local understanding and the capacity to act on them is our way forward.

Finding creative solutions to address multitude of water issues for Bangladesh isn't going to happen through an article, a focused workshop, or even a multi-million-dollar water project.  We need to focus on learning by doing and jointly looking to find the 18th camel to address issues of water scarcity, security and sustainability within the context, constraints, and capabilities of Bangladesh.

Given the informal nature of water economy, power inequalities and domination of elite interests at the local level decentralisation of decision-making and operations and maintenance of water projects through local government institutions - as opposed to through independently commissioned water management organisations - is likely to be more sustainable in Bangladesh. The key issue is to recognise that working only through public sector organisations can't provide a sustainable mode to operate and maintain these projects over time. Bangladesh needs to explore and adopt a systematic approach where resources are made available only if investment design includes continuous capacity building through learning by doing, and post-investment monitoring protocols for adaptive maintenance.

In 1976, a book titled “Bangladesh: The Test Case of Development” drew significant attention and the hopeless implications of the title got stuck ever since; most likely, in response to Henry Kissinger's infamous reference to Bangladesh as a “bottomless basket”. At that time, many feared Bangladesh would not survive as an independent nation.

Bangladesh has not only survived, but prospered despite the hopeless predictions of 1970s. How did this happen? Not surprisingly, different groups will fight over who and what is responsible for the successes of Bangladesh. Success usually has many parents and an independent “paternity test” for this remarkable story would be difficult and may not be necessary or even helpful. Now, instead of looking for the parent for this story of success or surprise, we should ask: What made this success possible? What will it take to make this sustainable?

While the challenges Bangladesh face to address water problems are many. A key problem, however, appears to be the vacuum in motivational ideology, accountability, and responsibility among the intellectuals and decision makers to guide their actions. In particular, we need to focus on institutions to make individuals accountable and responsible to internalise “if you're going to talk the talk, you've got to walk the walk”. One way to do this is through principled pragmatism where a context dependent and problem centred process of inquiry will lead to identification of possible actions with measurable outcomes.

Building on the success of last four decades of development, the 18th Camel we seek to address issues of water scarcity, security, and sustainability for Bangladesh can be found — similar to the wise woman's sharing of her own camel — 'if we are willing to walk the walk to explore creative solutions to address complex water problems rooted in accountability and responsibility of individuals and institutions and guided by emerging global norms of sustainability and equity.

The writer is Director of Water Diplomacy, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Professor of Water Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, USA. Twitter: @ShafikIslam

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