"Water, water, everywhere, not a drop to drink": The Impact of Commodification of Water through Social Business on Poverty Alleviation in Rural Bangladesh
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Water is an abundant natural resource in Bangladesh. Yet around 57 million people living in the Bengal basin lack access to potable water. Pollution and arsenic contamination of groundwater, especially in the rural areas of Bangladesh, are the key causes behind the drinking water crisis. In addition to the public health concern this creates, access to clean water is an important factor in poverty reduction efforts because it impacts the livelihood of poor people. Thus, it is imperative to provide alternative sources of safe drinking water not only to reduce the number of people who are affected by water-borne illnesses but also to alleviate poverty. Grameen Veolia Water Ltd. (GVW) is an example of a social business that attempts to address this problem. Social business is a concept pioneered by Muhammad Yunus where the idea is to target a social problem by creating businesses - in this case to provide potable water to poor people in remote villages in Bangladesh. In 2009 GVW launched its pilot project in a rural area south of Bangladesh known as Goalmari. As a social business GVW sells its filtered water at an affordable price to the villagers. Since community participation is essential to generate social profit from the business, it can also be considered as a bottom-up development approach. Despite people’s initial enthusiasm to buy clean drinking water, however, the community’s participation in the project has been modest due to various economic and social constraints. I contend that the lack of participation in the GVW project is due to its commodification of water. The social business has not sufficiently addressed the issue of poverty alleviation, as it does not improve the livelihood of the people whose socioeconomic situation restricts their access to the drinking water sold by GVW.