With 39.9m Bangladeshis in dire need of safe drinking water but lacking the means to pay for its supply, there is a critical need for radical thinking.
The country has the worst problem of arsenic contamination of groundwater in the world, causing widespread poisoning and putting 85m at risk. Water supplies are further affected by river pollution, poor sanitation and rising levels of saline.
But Shishir Water could point the way to a solution. A social business project, it has no desire to exploit the water shortage for profits. Instead it seeks to use a micro-franchising model, establishing a network of small water treatment plants in local communities each staffed by four young people and serving around 600 households with treated surface water.
Co-founder and One Young World Ambassador Shazeeb M Khairul Islam, who has set up the scheme, says: “Our franchisee will deliver a 20-litre jar of water to every household for consumption, which is produced easily in a sustainable way. Shishir exists to improve the lives of the people living in arsenic-contaminated areas by delivering clean drinking water at their doorsteps.”
Shishir’s social business model means it can offer its water at a quarter of the market price. But one of the obstacles to be overcome will be a longstanding culture of not paying for water or having it delivered. Many villagers in the target communities earn less than US$100 a month. “People in Bangladesh are not accustomed to buying water, it’s not in their habit,” says Shazeeb. “Mostly they drink contaminated water coming from the rivers or tubewells.”
Shishir Water has taken its first steps, working with the community of Mymensing with clean treated water from the River Bramhaputra. The initial goal is to serve 1,600 people from this plant, with a further nine plants to be established over the next 18 months with a staff of 50 young people, serving up to 45,000 people.
Shazeeb says that the young people working on the Shishir Water scheme will be under-educated and unable to obtain finance. The project is able to overcome this through its founding partner Grameen Telecom Trust, the social business platform set up by One Young World Counsellor and Nobel laureate Professor Yunus Mohammed, founder of the Grameen Bank. The young people have four years to pay back the loan and only repay the sum invested in them.
By treating the water locally, Shishir Water can drastically reduce delivery costs so that a 20 litre jar is sold for the equivalent of US 12 cents, rather than the US 50 cents price on the wider market. “We always need to build our plants close to a river and to a community,” says Shazeeb. “The community decides where it is built, because we are trying to work in a way so that they feel that it is their plant.”