Pipe Dreams Become a Reality

Residents in the Chittagong Hill Tracts communities of Bangladesh are piping their way out of disease and poverty.

Paglimukh Village, Bangladhesh – "I've spent most of my life here worrying about water," said Sampudi Tanchangya sitting in the shade of a citrus tree as she cuts betel nuts with a knife. She waves toward a nearby pipe that supplies tap water to her doorstep, thanks to the Chittagong Hill Tracts Rural Development Project supported by ADB.

A luxury even for many city dwellers, 180 villagers now have access to tap water. "Those days are gone," she added with a smile.

The Burden of Water

Like other village women in Bangladesh's southeastern hill country, when Sampudi came to Paglimukh village as a bride 25 years ago the burden of collecting water for the family fell on her shoulders. Year after year, she made up to five trips a day down to the local canal, legs aching as she struggled back uphill under the weight of heavy pitchers of water.

The only source of water for the farming community, located a half hour's drive from Rangamati, was the village canal. Villagers bathed in it and washed their clothes and cookware. During the monsoon season, when the canal water became muddy and contaminated, diarrhea and typhoid epidemics stalked Paglimukh, sickening villagers and claiming the lives of many young children.

The new taps, installed in every common point, have changed that. "This is something special to us," said Menuka, a 45-year-old mother of three daughters, as she filled an aluminum pitcher with clean water from the tap.

The Transformative Effects of Clean Water

Clean water is central to economic development. The clean water provided by the new taps has improved public health in the village. Diarrhea-related deaths have drastically reduced since 2005 when the taps were first turned on. That's quite an achievement in a country where waterborne diseases account for 24% of all deaths, and diarrhea and gastroenteritis claim the lives of more than 110,000 children under age 5 every year.

Not only does clean and accessible water save lives, it also spurs business development. Sujon Tanchangya, 23, runs a grocery shop along Rangamati-Kaptai road just outside his village. Before piped water became available, he was forced to close shop early to fetch water. "I'm now concentrating more on my business than on water. It's helping my business," said Sujon. And clean tap water lets children like Ritu Tanchangya, a 15-year-old student, spend more time in class. Ritu missed many days of school because she had to haul water for her family. Now she is free to attend as her home is one of 35 households supplied by a 46-meter-deep tube well from which water is pumped to an elevated storage tank before being piped under gravity to the family's tap.

By improving public health, allowing adults spend more time at their work, and helping children to spend more time at school, the system has transformed an entire village for a cost of $2,600.

Grassroots Participation

The project has three components: stimulating community development, building rural infrastructure, and providing small loans to the poor. One feature that makes this project different from many such efforts in Bangladesh is that it was conceived by villagers, not by outsiders. Villagers were asked to form an 11-member community development committee comprising mostly elders, and they were offered a fund to use in whatever way they decided would best serve community interests. The committee at Paglimukh voted for clean drinking water.

Authorities on the project accepted their choice and hired the Indigenous Multiplex Development Organization. The nongovernment organization helped villagers design the system and provided technical support. Another key feature of the project is that users finance at least 10% of the cost in cash or labor.

"When the villagers pay then they have a sense of participation," said Shanti Pada Chakma, executive director of the Indigenous Multiplex Development Organization. He said users are also asked to form a separate committee to oversee and maintain the system. Each beneficiary family pays up to 20 taka (about $0.30) per month for repair and maintenance of the tap water supply system Paghlimukh village has installed, said Chakma.

Sampudi is happy to pay her share. "I take a few steps to get water whenever I want it," she said, washing her hands and face under the tap at her home. Her neighbor Menuka Tanchangya nods in agreement saying, "To me it's a miracle."