On the flip side, an urgent response to provide clean water or some relief to those affected is often neither sustainable nor scalable.
During a visit to Chapai Nawabganj we discovered that the Horizontal Learning Program enables rapid response - without undermining a sound policy position.
While visiting Meherpur  municipality in Bangladesh last week, we learnt that 15 people had recently died in the nearby Amjhupi Union Parishad (UP) from arsenicosis . In a village meeting with the District Commissioner and UP Chairman we discovered that the citizens were drinking from both wells marked green (safe) as well as red (unsafe) because they were not confident that either of these sources had been correctly marked.
We were overwhelmed with the need for an immediate response but aware that any top-down solution could at best be partial. However, because of the Horizontal Learning Program (initiated by Union Parishads, facilitated by the Government of Bangladesh and supported by development partners) we were aware that local solutions to this problem had been developed by other Union Parishads.
At around 11 pm that night, it was resolved that a three member team from Amjhupi Union Parishad would join us to visit the nearby Ranihati Union Parishad of the neighboring Chapai Nawabganj Upazila (sub-district) to see how they had solved this problem. The solution was surprisingly simple, low cost and comprehensive.
The approach in Ranihati addressed arsenic and bacteriological contamination, hygiene behavior change, system operation and maintenance, while establishing the foundation for potential future ground water resource regulation.
Members from Chapai Nawabganj had learnt of this approach under the Horizontal Learning program from the JICA supported arsenic mitigation project in Chowgacha upazila. Representatives from Chapai Nawabganj had visited Chowgacha, observed the approach to arsenic testing and arsenicosis patient management and then modified the approach to fit their own context. Most significantly, while arsenic mitigation in Chowgacha was done through installing new water devices (i.e. pond sand filter, arsenic removal plants, protected dug wells, rain water harvesting, piped water supply) supported by project funds, in Chapai Nawbganj arsenic mitigation has been achieved through mixed water usage and simply switching to alternate safe water sources..... at negligible cost!
People from the Ranihati Union Parishad (UP) of Chapai Nawabganj set out to test and colour 100% of the water sources (hand pumps, irrigation wells, tube wells) for arsenic. Owners of water sources were required to pay for the test (BDT 10 per source) and register their water source (BDT 20 per source). In exchange they were able to utilize the services of a UP mechanic for free, if they first protected the casing of their tube well against bacteriological intrusion.
After visiting Ranihati Union Parishad of Chapai Nawabganj Upazila, it dawned on us that the UP had built much more than arsenic mitigation into their screening process. The Union Parishad was ensuring that:
• 100% of the water sources (hand pumps, irrigation wells, tube wells) were screened for arsenic.
• 100% of 'green' drinking water sources were protected against bacteriological intrusion.
• 100% of drinking water sources were satisfactorily operated and maintained.
• 100% of all water sources (handpumps, irrigation wells, tube wells) were registered.... as the first step towards source sustainability.
After visiting Chapai Nawabganj, the representatives from Amjhupi were confident that they could replicate this arsenic screening and mitigation approach in their UP. Stakeholders from Chapai Nawabganj also offered to support the replication of this initiative in Meherpur Sadar on the condition that the devised solution was led by the Union Parishads and their citizens, facilitated by the Upazila / District and supported by all other stakeholders.
We came back from this trip believing that it is possible to respond rapidly to local needs without undermining local autonomy through the facilitating of horizontal learning processes which enable local governments to Connect, Appreciate, Review and Apply learnings from their peers to their own context.
In the light of such an experience the Vision of the Government of Bangladesh to ensure safe (arsenic free) water for all by 2011 may not only be achievable but also potentially sustainable.