Choices: Workaround or workthrough?

Beginning of December, I was invited to speak at Softexpo, a major software industry event in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The organizers transported me to the seminar location, the Bangladesh-China Friendship Conference Centre (their equivalent of the BMICH), in an ambulance.

No, I was not sick.
That day had been declared a general strike or hartal, by the Bar Association and various other entities in response to some bombs.

When there is a hartal in Bangladesh and you are considered important enough, you get to travel in an ambulance.

If you?re not considered important enough and happen to live in an area policed by the various goon squads enforcing the hartal, you get to stay at home and forego your livelihood.

One or two poor bus or taxi drivers who venture out will get their windscreens smashed or the vehicles torched.

Just think back to the 1988-89 JVP-enforced hartals and you get the picture.

I thought this would be a new experience so I took the ambulance.

As I was riding in this simple vehicle, which differed from an ordinary van only by frosted windows, a stretcher bed and a simple first-aid box, and the lack of comfortable seats in the back, I thought I would be speaking to an empty room.

After all, how many people could be transported by ambulance?

I was wrong.

The room filled up to its 250-seat capacity. It seems that everyone in Bangladesh knows how to work around a hartal. By all measures, the seminar was a success.

The larger issue is the pathology of the workaround.

Dysfunctional practices and institutions exist in societies like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Instead of changing those practices or reforming those institutions or working through, we develop workarounds.

After sometime, the strangeness of the workaround is no longer perceived by the users; it becomes the ?Sri Lankan way of doing things? and its few critics are labelled unrealistic importers of foreign ways.

I have seen many workarounds in Sri Lanka, but for some reason, the workaround in drinking water seems to me to be the most pathological.

How the rich get 24 hours of water . . .

It is widely recognised that pipe-borne safe drinking water is one of the most important amenities of modern life.

Pipe-borne water reduces the tremendous burden placed on women and children who have to walk long distances and wait in line otherwise.

If the pipe-borne water is purified, there are major benefits in terms of preventive healthcare.

If people trust the system enough to drink off the tap, as is the case in all advanced economies, there are significant savings in energy as well.

Pipe-borne water is especially important in densely populated countries like Sri Lanka (if we exclude the microstates, Sri Lanka is the 11th most densely populated country in the world; if we take out the de facto separate state created by the 2005 election, we jump to 5th place worldwide, just behind the Netherlands and ahead of both Japan and India)–

Pipe-borne water is very important in densely populated countries because water in such countries generally carries traces of feces, which is a major cause of disease.

In densely populated countries that do not have sewage systems (i.e., Sri Lanka) the problem is even more severe.

So how do we do on pipe-borne water? Not too good, according to the Department of Census and Statistics. Only two of the 17 districts covered by the survey supplied more than half the households with pipe-borne water in March 2003.

District Pipe Borne Tube Well  Prot. Well Unpr. Well River Bowser Other Not stated
Colombo 63.7 0.9 31.2 1.2 0.4 0 0.2 2.4
Nuwara Eliya 51.5 2.9 14.4 6.9 18.1 0 3.9 2.4
Kandy 39.8 8.1 34.4 8.9 5.4 0.3 1.5 1.6
Badulla 36.5 3.1 29 11.2 15.7 0 2.5 2.1
Matara 29.1 0.8 48.3 12 4.8 0 3.6 1.3
Hambantota 27.8 7.8 48.1 9.1 3.6 2.1 0.6 0.8
Ratnapura 26.6 0.9 31.1 11 22.6 0 6.7 1.1
Gampaha 23.9 5.3 61.6 6.7 0.1 0.1 0.5 1.9
Matale 21.4 14.8 42.8 13.6 5.4 0.2 0.9 0.8
Galle 19.3 2.7 59.8 14 2.5 0 0.9 0.8
Kalutara 18.3 2.4 63.4 11.5 2.1 0 0.5 1.6
Kegalla 17.7 0.3 51.8 17.1 9.5 0 2.0 1.5
Monaragala 14.4 7 43 18.8 13.2 0 0.0 0
Puttalam 11.2 14.1 65.8 4.5 0.2 1.4 1.8 1.1
Polonnaruwa 10.9 11.6 54.2 17.9 3.8 0 0.5 1.1
Anuradhapura 9.6 12.8 61.1 12.7 1.3 0 0.7 1.8
Kurunegala 4.1 4.5 77.3 11.6 0.6 0 0.9 1.1

Even the households that are connected to the pipe system do not get 24 hours of supply; on average, the pressure is around 12 hours; those living in the hilly parts of the system would be lucky to get six hours of water supply a day.

But most readers of this column would find this an alien discussion.

After all, they enjoy 24 hours of uninterrupted water supply, except when there is a system-wide prolonged shut down.

. . . and deprive the poor of even six

That is where the workaround comes in.

Every middle or upper class house has an enormous tank on its roof; some have underground tanks as well.

Many have sump pumps that automatically suck the water out of the public system when there is water in it.

With considerable private investment, the Sri Lankan middle and upper classes have worked around the dysfunctional public water supply system.

In the process, they have deprived those without the wherewithal to invest in tanks and pumps the water they would otherwise get.

The vocal classes are happy; the Water Board continues in its inefficient and inept ways (exemplified by the fact that 40% of the processed water that enters its pipes yields no revenue); the poor get a dribble of water and develop their own workarounds.

The NGOs march against the privatisation of water.

No one asks how we can create a public water supply and sewage system that will actually serve the majority of the households.

No one asks where the Rs. 112 billion needed to supply drinking water over the next decade will come from.

And, of course, everyone objects to higher water rates that would be necessary to support that level of investment and provide incentives for conservation.

But no costs are spared in the workaround: just look around Colombo at the tops of the houses where a new architectural feature is emerging, the weird and wonderful coverings of the water tanks.

So the next time you drink a glass of boiled, chlorinated water (or the new, new thing, which is bottled water) think of the workarounds behind all that.

When will we decide on a workthrough?