How do you prepare for the unpredictable? It’s one of the most pressing challenges facing countries around the world as they work to contain the spread and impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19). A World Bank water project in Bangladesh provides some valuable lessons.
Bangladesh has one of the world’s highest population densities and is also among the countries most vulnerable to extreme weather events. When Cyclone Aila swept across southern Bangladesh in May 2009, it affected around 3.9 million people. Those devasting impacts and subsequent recovery highlighted the critical importance of disaster preparedness in three specific ways that are being utilized as part of the COVID-19 response: having a system in place to channel immediate support, strong institutions and sustainability through citizen engagement.
Immediate Support for an Emergency Response
One of the lessons from Cyclone Alia was the need for an immediate response system to channel resources to where they are needed most. Applying that insight meant that an emergency assistance component was built in to the Bangladesh Municipal Water Supply and Sanitation Project which helped immediately mobilize goods and equipment when the COVID outbreak began.
Funding was rapidly made available for constructing handwashing stations in 30 municipalities. When built in the right way in the right places, these can be gamechangers because handwashing with soap is one of the most effective ways of slowing human-to-human transmission of COVID-19. It also prevents many other infectious diseases such as typhoid and cholera.
The handwashing stations will be equipped with running water and liquid soap with holders. These will be situated in strategic locations - entrances of each municipality, markets, healthcare facilities and densely populated areas - where they will benefit the maximum number of people.
A caretaker will be deployed in each location to ensure that people are using the handwashing stations correctly and encourage visitors wash their hands upon arrival, for example. They will also be responsible for keeping them clean and equipped with sufficient supplies such as liquid soap.
The project will assist municipalities in building and operating public toilets, many of which will be managed by women’s self-help groups. Locations for safe disposal of fecal sludge are also planned. In these facilities too, the project will promote safe behaviors including regular handwashing and hygiene, as well as ensure regular cleaning and disinfection of facilities along with the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Capable and robust institutions are essential before, during and after a crisis. In Bangladesh, much of the responsibility for providing urban water and sanitation services is at the municipal level. That is why the project supports the Government of Bangladesh’s Department of Public
Health Engineering (DPHE), which provides infrastructure for municipalities and oversees their operations. This involves instituting geographic information system (GIS) and IT-enabled systems, as well as training and capacity building for the DPHE staff and participating municipalities. In addition, the project is supporting to establish and operationalize a Municipality Support Unit within DPHE to act as a one-stop shop on water supply and sanitation, providing coordination and assistance to all municipalities.
This sector support and capacity strengthening also incentivizes high-performance. Each municipality that improves revenue collection and financial management systems as well as water and sanitation coverage – such as hours of supply, water quality and solid waste collection – will receive additional funding based on improvements in these areas. Operational subsidies to municipalities will help them meet their expenditures for water supply and sanitation, as they progress toward financial sustainability.
All of this leads to more sustainable and resilient operations, with an ability to maintain services during crises as well as ensuring a baseline of water and sanitation services before.
Citizen Engagement Contributes to Long-Term Sustainability
Working with stakeholders is vital to ensure initial delivery and longer-term sustainability. More frequent handwashing is now the new normal and the project will benefit from a network of key stakeholders - civil society organizations, community groups and the private sector, among others.
Because the project involved communities, especially women, from the early stages of planning and implementation, there is already an established relationship – around 10,000 participants attended project consultation meetings. This is vital as people look to community leaders for cues on behavior changes. As many in these communities had previously helped in sensitizing households on the benefits of piped water connection and subsequent enrollment, they have a stake in maintaining infrastructure such as pipes, taps and soap dispensers even once the worst of the pandemic has passed.
The local private sector has engaged with municipalities and played a key role in the construction and operation of the water supply distribution system, as well as sanitation facilities, including for fecal sludge management. The World Bank has a long history of working with local entrepreneurs in Bangladesh, including through the Global Water Security & Sanitation Partnership (GWSP), a multidonor trust fund that has helped facilitate sanitation microfinance for rural households. This work informed the current project’s decisions on where and how to target resources for the greatest impact.
Bangladesh serves as an example of project design that facilitates urgent responses, effective institutions and long-term partnerships, all of which can play key roles in disaster preparedness and response. These activities can save lives and protect livelihoods while offering lessons that all countries can learn from.