The expenditure made by the government to address water issues has not translated into the desired output to provide 24×7 access to safe and reliable drinking water. This has put enormous pressure on the government to address the water issue.
As important it is to have infrastructures related to water, it is equally vital to have policies and advocacies for water management and sustainability. However, at present it seems that we are undermining the importance of policies and advocacies for water. The absence of such policies and advocacies has resulted in water mismanagement, loss of government revenue, and exploitation of natural water resources resulting in tragedy of the commons.
The third parliamentary elections in 2018 saw many common pledges being made by all four contesting political parties. One amongst them was to address the water related issues in the country. Perhaps, a commitment and the political will from political parties give the much-needed impetus to address issues related to water. Thus, this may be the right time for Bhutan to take a step further to address water problems.
One Mandate – Two Responsible Agencies
One of the many reasons that have led to water problems in the country could be because of different agencies responsible for the same mandate, i.e., to provide safe, adequate and potable water supply. The Water Act of Bhutan 2011 specifically mandates the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement (MoWHS) to ensure safe and potable water supply and management in urban towns. The Act, however, fails to designate any competent authority or agency for water supply and management in rural areas. Rather, the Act designates Dzongkhag Tshogdu (District Level Committee) and Gewog Tshogdu (Block Level Committee) supported by multiple layers of administration to collaborate with Ministry of Health (MoH) to ensure safe and potable water supply and management in other areas including rural places. Such an institutional arrangement has resulted in lack of coordination and trust among the agencies involved for water management.
This has led to agencies to function independently and carry out their respective sectorial responsibilities, often resulting in duplication of efforts and poor resource management. Accordingly, to address this issue and to maintain a clear working modality between MoWHS and MoH, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between the two ministries in August 2018. The MoU was signed to undertake integrated planning and coordinated water and sanitation infrastructure development by the MoWHS to provide safe and reliable drinking water and sanitation services to all and leaving the mandate of water quality tests and monitoring to MoH.
The MoU is just an interim measure until necessary amendments are made to the Water Act 2011.
Bhutan has one of the highest per capita availability of water in the world, yet many of the towns and villages do not have access to 24×7 drinking water.
Over the years, demand for water has been increasing in Bhutan with improvement in living standards. Though it has not been established that water consumption increases with living standards, many researchers and studies have mentioned that the water demand increases with higher standards of living. Therefore, to meet the demand of its communities and residents, people may have started to construct their own water supply sources resulting in tragedy of the commons.
On the other hand, to meet the demands of its residents in the Thromdes, people especially the house owners may have resorted to illegal tapping, bypassing water meters, illegal connections, diversion of water, and non-installation of water meters. Such actions have led to loss of revenue for Thromdes. The performance audit report 2017 for Thimphu Thromde mentions that such activity has resulted in loss of Thromde revenue amounting to Nu. 28.497M.
While all four Thromdes have installed water meters, its coverage is very low with the exception of Thimphu Thromde. The water meter connection is 87 percent for Thimphu Thromde compared to other three Thromdes, where the connection is less than 50 percent. Also, many dzongkhag municipalities do not have water meter installed in their jurisdiction.
The Water Act of Bhutan 2011 and The Water Regulation of Bhutan 2014 mandate a competent authority to impose and collect water tariff for its maintenance and service costs. The municipalities are levying service fees as per the act and regulation but yet are not able to meet the cost for its operation and maintenance. One of the reasons cited by Royal Audit Authority was mainly due to lack of monitoring by the responsible authority. For example, a performance audit report for Thimphu Thromde mentions that lack of monitoring by the Thromde authority has resulted in loss of government revenue amounting to Nu. 20.365 million. The report further adds that Thromde lacks proper mechanism to penalize the offenders. The report cannot be generalized for other Thromdes and urban towns in the country.
For rural areas, the rural water users are responsible for routine maintenance of their water facilities. However, neither the Act nor the Regulation indicates that the water tariff should be levied for rural water supply. The Regulation mandates the formation of Water Users’ Association in rural areas and one of their functions is to keep books of accounts on the money received and disbursement made by the association. But it fails to mention how they should levy the fees on the use of water by individual households. Such scenario of not being able to keep the book of accounts and lack of monitoring might give rise to moral hazard among rural water users.
A Survey by Water and Sanitation Division with the Department of Engineering Services in 2016 for Thimphu Thromde states that only 11 percent of the population residing in Thimphu Thromde had knowledge about water management practices. The figure clearly indicates that the awareness on water saving practices is very low in the capital city where most of the important institutional offices are located.
Holistically, climate change has played a major role in creating water problems. This has resulted in erratic rainfalls, frequent flashfloods and drying of streams in the country. These have all aggravated to water shortages of drinking, irrigation and other purposes. However, climate change is a trans-boundary issue that requires the action of other countries. As a small country, the efforts put by Bhutan to address climate change seems negligible. Therefore, this piece will not discuss on the climate change and its impact on water but rather discuss the policy gaps, rules and regulations related to water services and provisions in Bhutan.
What can be done?
Since the present government has made it their priority to address water issue in the country, they should start by making amendments to the Water Act 2011. The present MoU has reconciled and streamlined both the ministries with specific mandates and to share the information and report of implementation and issues related to water and sanitation. However, the amendments made should clearly specify that the rural and urban water supply would be in one department or commission (if at all the present government decides to form a commission as pledged). This would ensure that adequate expertise and capacities be developed in one institution.
This would also ensure that all components related to water like water supply, wastewater treatment and disposal, and storm water disposal shall be under one department of commission.
To address the issue of non-revenue water, the respective agency should penalize those who are caught making illegal connections. Such penalty should also be levied on workers who execute illegal connections. In order to enhance it’s monitoring activities; Thromdes should enhance its manpower capacity.
Although the residences of urban centers are today paying for water related service, it’s high time that a minimal tariff be imposed for wastewater treatment and storm-water disposal. It is also important for the government to impose minimal amount of water tariff to the rural water users to avoid moral hazard. This should be clearly reflected in the Water Regulation and Water Act.
To make people aware on the importance of water, the government should start a campaign to increase public awareness of the importance of water and wastewater management to lead a productive and healthy life. Such campaigns could start with educating school children for long-term and sustainable knowledge, which could influence their water behaviors for the rest of their lives. Similarly, an adult program should also be started so that people realize the importance of clean 24×7 water supply and wastewater treatment.
Garul Dhoj Bhujel
Dy. Chief Statistical
Officer PPD, MoWHS