In Bangladesh, the first week of June is an interesting time. The national budget becomes the talk of the town – newspapers and TV channels go on overdrive to dissect the finance minister's speech, economists question GDP estimates, while the business community and consumers monitor which products will now be more costly.
Amidst the pie charts and financials, one could be forgiven for thinking that something as basic as water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) would remain in the periphery of the budget, crowded out by other sectors deemed to be of higher priority.
However, to the government's credit, the WASH sector has received considerable policy attention over the past few years, and this is increasingly reflected in the budget. Case in point, the FY 2019-20 budget proposed the exemption of VAT and supplementary duty on selected imported raw materials for sanitary napkins, partially reflecting the longstanding demands of the WASH sector to exempt all tax on sanitary napkins.
The following year (FY 2020-21), the government proposed to further expand the tax benefit on sanitary napkins by decreasing the customs duty on the import of one raw material.
This time around, the government went a step further and proposed VAT exemption on the local production of sanitary napkins while also extending the earlier exemption by two years. This move is expected to make this essential product more affordable to millions of women and girls in the country, enabling safer menstrual hygiene management and improved health outcomes.
The sector remains hopeful that the reference to women's health as part of this VAT exemption in the Finance Minister's speech would advance collective efforts to ensure adequate facilities for safe menstrual hygiene management in schools, hospitals, and institutions.
There appears to be considerable mention of the needs of women in this budget. It is reported that more than 20 lakh women workers in export industries have received Covid-19 incentive packages.
It is also heartening to see the government taking steps to address the health and nutritional needs of poor women through both maternity allowances and working and lactating mother allowances. The provision of microinsurance for poor women and the 8.6 percent increase in the allocation for the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs is a welcome move that now demands proper implementation.
There is yet another development in this year's budget that is highly encouraging for the WASH sector. For the first time, the Annual Development Programme (ADP) has categorised water supply and sanitation as a separate sub-sector under physical planning and housing.
This sub-sector includes the allocations for the four WASAs and the Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE), the national lead agency for all public investments on WASH outside the jurisdictions of WASAs.
It should be noted that this sub-sector does not fully capture the WASH sector, as there are other ministries/divisions such as education and health that have WASH-related expenditure. Moreover, there are no readily available and comprehensive data on the WASH budget, and calculating the WASH budget still requires manually scouring through the budget books to identify WASH-related projects of relevant entities.
Nonetheless, the formation of this sub-sector should partially allay the painstaking efforts and will hopefully pave the way for separate budget codes for WASH in the government's budget and accounting system. Separate codes for WASH will enable better tracking of expenditure for appropriate policy and programmatic response.
At 4.47 percent of total ADP for FY 2021-22, the allocation for water supply and sanitation is Tk 10,064 crore. This amount represents a 25 percent increase from last year and appears to be especially encouraging when contrasted with the fact that overall ADP went up by just 10 percent.
However, it is highly likely that this initial allocation will be reduced in the revised ADP, as usually done, given project executing agencies' inability to fully utilise these funds. The sub-sector's allocation in the revised ADP 2020-21 is 30 percent lower than the initial allocation.
Although these trends do not bode well for WASH delivery, it is reassuring to note that the government is undertaking reforms to simplify the fund release procedures of development projects, which will hopefully speed up project implementation and lead to better utilisation of funds.
When it comes to WASH allocation, hard to reach climate-vulnerable areas often remain neglected. Climate and WASH are inextricably linked – rising sea levels affect the availability of potable water, while recurring floods and other disasters damage WASH infrastructure, resulting in acute WASH crises in climate-vulnerable communities.
The heightened vulnerability of these communities, which is worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic, along with the government's leading role in climate adaptation, warrants sizable investments towards climate-resilient WASH delivery.
However, allocations for these hard to reach areas, including coastal belts, hills, chars, and haors, remain negligible. The budget speech does mention the government's plan to ensure potable water supply in every village under the "My Village-My Town" project, including special arrangements for supplying safe water in salinity-prone char areas, arsenic risk areas, and hilly and haor areas. Again, however, this will require adequate budgetary allocation, something that has been hard to come by so far.
The government has been preparing a climate budget to track public expenditure on climate for the last few years. The water and Sanitation programme for climate-vulnerable areas is covered in this exercise, in line with the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan.
In this budget, the Water and Sanitation programme for climate-vulnerable areas has received Tk 672.35 crore, which is 4 percent lower than the corresponding figure from the last budget. This reverses the upward trend that was prevalent in the last four years, and it remains to be seen whether this reduced allocation would be enough to realise the aspirations of the My Village-My Town project.
On the plus side, DPHE has initiated few projects in the green pages of the ADP (unapproved projects with no allocation in the current ADP), one of which involves rainwater harvesting in coastal districts with an estimated cost of Tk 402 crore. Wider adoption of these context-specific technologies, as laid out in the 8th Five Year Plan, would be key to realising the vision of clean water for all.
Beyond the financials, the budget speech remains an important tool in assessing the government's development agenda. The budget speech mentions the government's intention to prepare master plans for major cities, which will cover the development of sewerage.
Assuming the effective treatment and safe disposal of waste, it will provide a centralised solution for safely managed sanitation. However, these investments come with a hefty price tag. Therefore, it would be equally important to pay due attention to non-sewered solutions (by mechanised collection of waste for subsequent offsite treatment) in small towns, which was also well expounded in the 8th Five Year Plan.
We began by acknowledging the increased policy attention to WASH as illustrated by the various WASH-specific policies, strategies, frameworks and plans that have either been developed or are in the process of development. The commitment to WASH for all is clear. It is now imperative to transform these commitments into action, and what better way to demonstrate this than by an adequate and equitable WASH budget?
Hasin Jahan is Country Director, WaterAid Bangladesh. Zarif Rasul is Strategic Support Specialist, WaterAid Bangladesh.