Better water management for improved livelihood
WATER is a scarce commodity. It is this reason that makes its management that much more important for all of us. My attention was drawn in this regard last week to two informative and interesting articles -- the first related to equity consideration in water management by Jahiruddin Chowdhury (of the Institute of Water and Flood Management, BUET) and the second pertaining to Bangladesh's wetland ecosystems and livelihoods of the poor who depend on them by Mary Renwick and Deepa Joshi (of Winrock International).
As a water activist, the studies assumed special significance for me because they underlined the importance of water in creating socio-economic opportunities. Jahiruddin in particular, has added to the dimension by pointing out how water management projects in Bangladesh have brought economic benefit to one section of the society while causing economic hardships to another section.
Management of water as a commodity is a complex operation. Basin wide planning and non-water activities impacts in their own way not only on the environment and ecosystems but also on sustainable development and 'social prosperity'. This factor consequently generates the need for an integrated approach. It also acquires special significance because proper water management has a significant bearing for public health, energy production, food production, transport, fisheries, agro-processing, forestry and ecosystems -- all related to economic growth and water dependent livelihoods. In this context impartial and non-politicized attention also needs to be given in decision making regarding the needs of low-income vulnerable groups such as marginal farmer, fisherman (who might particularly suffer due to loss of open water fish habitat), boatman etc.
The studies have also correctly pointed out that water management and water supply in Bangladesh is faced with problems in and around urban centers as well as in the hilly regions. Water excellence is especially under threat in urban areas due to pollution of surface water through disposal of urban wastes and industrial effluent. Similarly, there has been decline in water quality in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (which is affecting the highland population) due to seasoning of timber in the water and leakage of fuel from motorized engine transports. Such a prevailing situation is totally contrary to the basic assumption that safe drinking water is a human right and that maintenance of environmental flow and ecosystems are vital for economic development.
Such a scenario clearly raises the question about the effectiveness of the institutional mechanism that is presently in place for the purpose of water management. I believe that there is serious need to examine whether the responsible authorities are being able to suitably address the question of competing water needs that have emerged due to population growth and increased economic activity in both agriculture and industry. There are also the additional points of effective flood control, ensuring suitable navigation, maintaining of morphology, satisfying ecological requirements and preventing salt intrusion.
One hopes that our new political government will give special priority to water management. We are a deltaic country where our network of rivers, streams, canals and water bodies are not only the bedrock for most of our economic activities but also the source of subsistence food production (for landless people), livestock fodder and medicinal plants. The comparatively poorer sections of the rural community also depend heavily on such water sources for their irrigation needs (required for supplementary home vegetable gardens and 'shifting cultivation' on hill slopes). It is this additional aspect that makes proper water management that much more significant.
A recent seminar convened by the Bangladesh Water Partnership has identified another area which deserves attention. Water engineers and hydrologists reiterated correctly that 'alternate flooding and recession in tidal floodplain performs an important flushing function essential for morphological stability of tidal rivers'. I agree with them that this important function requires the relevant authorities to review our coastal embankment plan and the putting in place of flood control polders that are being constructed to prevent tidal flooding of the tidal floodplain. The present plan appears to have overlooked factors that are now resulting in serious water logging in adjacent areas and causing severe damage to agriculture, forestry, fisheries, livestock and physical infrastructures.
Our Prime Minister is on record regarding the need to engage the local community more effectively at all levels. In this regard, a special Task Force could be formed consisting of representatives from not only the Ministries of Water, Disaster management and Environment but also from the LGED to examine how our water and ecological resources as well as biodiversity can be best maintained. Local community associations could be organized within the Union local government structure to monitor ecosystem maintenance (using local knowledge and institutional memory) within that area and to resolve conflict arising from competing use of water for different economic activities.
Such community participation in 'the identification, planning, implementation, operation and maintenance of water management projects' could be an 'essential input' for deciding on necessary management interventions, the promotion of accountability and the development of meaningful solutions to emerging and existing problems. This could relate to formulation and implementation of regulations and guidelines necessary to protect the water regime, water quality, water rights, fish migration pathways (especially for hilsa) and navigation routes consistent with flood cycles and river morphology.
We have to remember that such a co-management approach (within the local government system) has to ensure that local communities have direct control over the management, utilization and benefits arising out of the use of local resources. Such an approach can then seek to develop linkages between communities and the government at the local, intermediate and national levels.
Renwick and Joshi have pointed out appropriately that such linkages will involve stakeholders at various levels -- often also referred to as 'vertical linkages'. The government will have to achieve the required sustainable vertical linkages in the socio-economic context. This will need placing emphasis on developing equitable local institutions and supporting changes in attitudes and practices among users and government agencies. This might appear to be a difficult task but it is certainly not insurmountable.
I believe that we can make this evolving process self-sustainable. It will require political will, commitment and lending a hand of support to the interacting organizations within the institutional co-management framework. Undertaking such a course of action in an inter-active manner through horizontal linkages will help us to succeed. We have to understand that a better water management approach (involving shared responsibilities, trust and inclusiveness) juxtaposed with a rehabilitated ecosystem translates to improved livelihoods within the local economy.
Muhammad Zamir is a former Secretary and Ambassador and can be reached at [email protected]