Dhaka Wasa: Performance and challenges

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Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (Wasa) is a service oriented autonomous commercial organisation in the public sector, entrusted with the responsibility of providing water supply, sewerage disposal and storm water drainage services in Dhaka city. It covers more than 360 sq. km service area with production of almost 2,110 million litres of water per day (MLD). Wasa faces challenges like unplanned city development and informal settlements, transitioning to using surface water instead of groundwater, and large investment funding. But it has a number of achievements like significant increase in water production, improved service quality, increased revenue, reduction of non-revenue water, and provision of water supply at low cost.
Dhaka Wasa was established in 1963 as an independent organisation under the East Pakistan Ordinance XIX. Since then, it has been expanding its service domain and upgrading level of services to keep pace with the growing demand.
Wasa is functioning under the newly approved “Table of Organisation & Equipment” run by the Dhaka Wasa Board, which consists of 13 members who formulate policy and provide overall guidelines. The managing director is the chief executive of the organisation, and the top-level positions were reorganised by the Wasa Act, 1996. The service area of Wasa is divided into 11 zones.
The key challenges facing Wasa are briefly described below:
Unplanned city development and informal settlements: Dhaka is the world’s fastest growing mega city. Each year the flow of migrants, who are mostly Low Income Community (LIC) people from rural and other urban areas, is increasing. Due to tremendous expansion and population growth over the last two decades, the city developed in an unplanned manner, and the planning for Wasa activities has to be modified to meet fast-growing demand for water.
Switching to surface water from underground extraction: Wasa has almost 100% water coverage. At present, 87% of the supply comes from groundwater, and the rest from surface water treatment. Wasa has to change its focus to surface water instead of groundwater due to rapid depletion of the groundwater level. However, treating surface water is more expensive than using ground water.
Low tariffs and large investments: The present water tariff is very low and uneconomical. An appropriate water tariff is required to balance the benefits and costs of water usage, and to ensure sufficient revenue for the long-term financial sustainability of the water supply business. However, low revenues limit the utility’s capacity to make a higher contribution to investments. Wasa needs massive investment to treat surface water.
While the rate of development and achievement on different fronts of Wasa had not been uniform over the years, some pragmatically designed programmes were initiated by the present management over the last 18-24 months, which had encouraging results in some key areas. Such efforts have been topped up by a well-thought-out “Dhaka Wasa Turn Around” programme that identified areas of improvement, followed by appropriate action programmes for their realisation. The programme has asked for institutional reform for capacity building, promoting transparency in all activities, establishing a new chain of command for accountability, and improving its operating ratio. The programme also fosters customer service excellence by inculcating a mentality that customers are the masters and Wasa staff are the servants. Some significant areas displaying laudable achievement in the last two years are outlined below:
Reduction of non-revenue water (NRW): Like many other water supply service providers across the globe, Wasa too had to combat the issue of NRW over the last few decades. A few years ago it was above 40%, but stood at around 35% about two years back. Recently, measures like reduction of leakage, accurate billing, metering, etc. have brought NRW down to around 29% (with a plan to reduce it to 25%).
Increase in revenue income: There was encouraging rise of around Tk.1 billion over the preceding year (from Tk.4 billion) in the last fiscal year. The main contributing factors behind this were timely and correct billing, introduction of on-line bill paying system, expansion of outsourcing of bill collection, raising production of water, metering, regularisation of illegal connections, reduction in NRW, and annual tariff adjustment with inflation.
Operational efficiency: Wasa, despite being a public service enterprise, operates on a commercial footing. Its operating ratio was around 0.9 two years back. Currently, it is 0.79. Through efficient management on all fronts, the management plans to bring it down to 0.7 by the end of 2012.
The key achievements that reflect Wasa’s commitment to better customer service are: a fully computerised billing system; monthly billing on time; 24-hour payment ability via SMS; 96% of bills sent out and 92% of bills received; and almost continuous water supply 24 hours per day 7 days a week.
Wasa plans to substitute groundwater by surface water through the construction of four large water treatment plants by 2021 at a cost of $1.8 billion. They will draw water from more distant and less polluted rivers up to 60 km from the city, and are expected to have a combined capacity of 1,630 MLD surface water. This will allow drawing of 70% from surface water and 30% from groundwater. Wasa plans massive investment to replace dwindling groundwater resources with treated surface water. More water as well as sewerage treatment plants are needed. Since Dhaka city has scarcity of land and space is expensive, the treatment plants have to be compact. In addition to that, technical and financial support is also needed to find ways and means to control pollution in the Dhaka watershed.
Wasa needs sufficient funds for establishing more surface water treatment plants and rehabilitation of water pipelines, as well as 100% metering. A change in the attitude of Wasa staff towards ownership and business is essential. Another important area is computerisation of all system information and development of a model for system analysis. It is developing a GIS based Management Information System on computer where all information will be available and archived. It is also developing a water distribution system model of the city, which will enhance its capacity for system evaluation, operation, and planning. If it can achieve all these, Dhaka WASA will become a successful organisation in future.

The writer is Managing Director, Dhaka WASA.