Technological innovations for societal change: Arsenic mitigation technologies for safe drinking water in rural Bangladesh

Debasish Kumar Kundu

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Although there has been considerable progress in providing pathogen-safe drinking water, including in the developing world, contamination of groundwater by naturally occurring arsenic is now recognised as a severe environmental and health disaster. This is a serious challenge in rural Bangladesh as well. The provisioning of safe drinking water through development of arsenic mitigation technologies remains a socially and technically complex and expensive task. With an effort of two decades, two categories of arsenic mitigation technologies have been developed and introduced in Bangladesh: first, arsenic removal technologies that purify arsenic-contaminated shallow tube well water and alternatives to the shallow-tube well. However, no single arsenic mitigation technology has been widely taken up, particularly one that is suitable for all affected areas. Besides, a wide range of arsenic mitigation technologies and/or safe drinking water options face challenges of social acceptability and widespread dissemination. This generates a complex socio-technical challenge of how to provide safe drinking water to the rural population of Bangladesh, requiring input from both technical and social sciences.

This thesis analyses socio-technical changes in the safe drinking water regime in rural Bangladesh, following the discovery of arsenic contamination of shallow tube well drinking water. The overarching research objective is to understand the factors shaping the success and failure of socio-technical changes to the safe drinking water sector in rural Bangladesh in the post-arsenic contamination phase.

The four sub-research questions to address this research objective are:

How do users understand social acceptability of three diverse arsenic mitigation technologies (deep tube well, improved dug well and Sono filter) in use in rural Bangladesh?How and why does a technological innovation (the deep tube well) deployed to provide safe drinking water become dominant in the context of arsenic contamination?Why did the promising take-off of the household arsenic removal Sono filter technology stagnate and fail to establish itself as a niche technology?How do novel experimental technologies (such as the Sub-Surface Arsenic Removal) function as emerging socio-technical experiments in rural Bangladesh, and (how) can they re-stabilize the safe drinking water regime?

Using a case study methodology and qualitative methods of data generation such as surveys, semi-structured interviews, focus group discussions and primary document analysis, this thesis addresses the research questions in three steps (Chapters 2-4). Chapter 2 undertakes a user-oriented analysis of social acceptability of arsenic safe technologies (Sono filter, Deep tube well and Improved dug well) in rural Bangladesh. The chapter draws on focus groups and semi-structured interviews with technology users in six villages across three districts to analyze how users assess the social acceptability of specific arsenic safe technologies. The findings highlight that factors such as availability, affordability and compatibility with existing water use practices, as understood by users, are key to securing their acceptance of a specific arsenic safe option. In concluding, this chapter points to a future research agenda in analyzing user-oriented social acceptability of arsenic safe technologies in developing country contexts.

Chapter 3 explains why and how the deep tube well as a safe drinking water technology has become dominant in mitigating the arsenic crisis in rural Bangladesh. This chapter applies insights from the Multi-Level Perspective on transitions in explaining changes to the socio-technical safe drinking water regime in rural Bangladesh. Data about seven dimensions of regime change was gathered from key actors, through in-depth interviews, focus groups sessions, a survey and a workshop. The findings reveal that with the introduction of deep tube well as an arsenic mitigation technology, changes in the seven dimensions helped to transform the existing safe drinking water regime in order to re-stabilize it. Technological attributes, symbolic meaning, industry structures, and techno-scientific knowledge supported an evolving dominance of the deep tube well. Besides, user practices as well as related infrastructures adapted to the use of deep tube wells, and new policies stimulated its application. The analysis in this chapter reveals that the dimensions of technological change in the existing regime are consistent with the features of incremental innovation.

Chapter 4 explores how arsenic contamination of shallow hand pump tube well drinking water in Bangladesh has created opportunities for radical innovations to emerge. One such innovation is the household Sono filter designed to remove arsenic from water supplies. Applying a strategic niche management approach, and based on interviews, focus groups and a workshop, this chapter explained the Sono filter’s failure to establish itself as a successful niche technology. Three explanatory factors are identified: lack of a strong social network (of technology producers, donors, users, and government actors) around it; diverging expectations regarding its potential to be a long-term solution; and lack of second order learning amongst key actors. This chapter also highlights how the overwhelming dependence on externally funded arsenic mitigation projects deters successful niche formation of radical innovations in the context of the developing world.

Chapter 5 analyzes experiments in rural Bangladesh with a recent arsenic mitigation innovation, so-called Subsurface Arsenic Removal (SAR), a technique designed to secure in-situ removal of naturally occurring arsenic in groundwater. This new technology was deployed on an experimental basis in two sites in rural Bangladesh. This chapter assesses whether and to what extent these first field experiments with SAR can be conceptualized as “socio-technical experiments” designed to incubate and improve radical technological innovations by serving as ‘living lab”, “window” and/or “agent of change”. As per writings in transition theory, an experiment functions as a living lab if it permits testing, learning and improving upon a technological innovation. It functions as a window if it is able to facilitate communication and conversation by raising actors’ interest and enrolling new actors. It functions as an agent of change if it can successfully stimulate changes in potential users’ practices and behaviours. Through studying two SAR experiments, this chapter shows that this novel technology served as a living lab and window, but not (yet) as agent of change, partly because integrating social considerations (such as community buy-in, appropriate site selection and post-installation support) into SAR prototype design during field experimentation proved very difficult. A key obstacle was that the technical efficacy of the technology remained a primary concern during experimentation, and it was unsafe to make water deriving from experimental SAR units available to users. The technology thus remained an abstract idea and provided unable to stimulate behavioral changes amongst users.

Overall this thesis has shown that technological innovations that are seen as more socially acceptable by users acquire dominance in a re-stabilized socio-technical regime (as is the case with the deep tube well technology). Furthermore, radical technological innovations, such as household arsenic removal filters, which are still at the niche (or pre-niche) experimental stage often struggle to establish themselves and scale up, with one reason being the lack of prospects to secure user social acceptability at these early stages. The findings of the thesis also shed light on the applicability in developing country contexts of certain concepts in transition theory, including strategic niche management of technological innovations, and the multilevel perspective shaping socio-technical transformations. One key finding is that niche formation for radical innovations cannot succeed in contexts where a hybrid set of actors involved in a socio-technical regime prioritize and promote incremental innovations. This thesis thus highlights the need to focus attention on what can be referred to as “pre-niche” activities in experimenting with radical technologies, including at the incubation phase. This can help to shed light on conditions under which real world experiments with radical innovations can serve as agents of change to facilitate sustainable uptake of arsenic safe technologies, particularly in rural developing country contexts. The thesis findings nonetheless reinforce the importance of incremental innovations in mitigating the arsenic contamination challenge in rural Bangladesh, also because of the limitations associated with dependence on external funding for experimenting with more radical innovations. These general findings have implications for the successful implementation of arsenic mitigation policies, and sustainable experimentation and uptake of safe drinking water innovations in rural Bangladesh, even as they provide input into the relevance of a transition theory lens into socio-technical transformations in a developing country context.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Mol, Arthur, Promotor
  • Gupta, Aarti, Co-promotor
Award date12 Mar 2018
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463432429
Publication statusPublished - 12 Mar 2018


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