Water supply and sanitation in Bangladesh is characterized by a number of achievements and challenges. The share of the population with access to an improved water source was estimated at 98% in 2004, a very high level for a low-income country. This has been achieved to a large extent through the construction of handpumps with the support of external donors. However, in 1993 it was discovered that groundwater, the source of drinking water for 97% of the rural population and a significant share of the urban population, is in many cases naturally contaminated with arsenic. It gradually emerged that 70 million people drank water which exceeds the WHO guidelines of 10 microgram of arsenic per liter, and 30 million drank water containing more than the Bangladesh National Standard of 50 microgram per liter, leading to chronic arsenic poisoning. On the other hand, surface water is usually polluted and requires treatment. Taking arsenic contamination into account, it was estimated that in 2004 still 74% of the population had access to arsenic-free drinking water. Another challenge is the low level of cost recovery due to low tariffs and poor economic efficiency, especially in urban areas where revenues from water sales do not even cover operating costs. In rural areas, users contribute 34% of investment costs, and at least in piped water schemes supported by the Rural Development Academy recover operating costs.
Sanitation faces its own set of challenges, with only 39% of the population estimated to have had access to adequate sanitation facilities in 2004. This is actually a doubling of the 20% share in 1990. A new approach to improve sanitation coverage in rural areas, the community-led total sanitation concept that has been first introduced in Bangladesh, is credited for having contributed significantly to the increase in sanitation coverage since 2000.
The government has adopted a number of policies to remedy the challenges in the sector, including National Policies for Safe Water Supply and Sanitation, both of 1998, a National Water Policy of 1999, a National Water Management Plan, and a National Policy for Arsenic Mitigation, both of 2004, as well as a National Sanitation Strategy of 2005. Among others, these policies emphasize decentralization, user participation, the role of women, and "appropriate pricing rules". The Arsenic Mitigation Policy gives "preference to surface water over groundwater". At the operational level, there has also been a conceptual shift from single-use of water - such as through handpumps for drinking water and motorized deep tubewells for irrigation - to multiple use of water from deep tubewells since the 1990s.
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