Cover Story


The image that conjures up in our mind when we discuss access to safe drinking water in South Asian countries is about time-consuming long queues or traveling distances for a pail of water to meet the daily necessity. The picture is dramatically different for Bangladesh’s capital city Dhaka, possibly the most densely populated city in the region. How Dhaka has made the impossible possible? Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority, better known as WASA, in the past decade, has changed the narrative of how safe water and proper sanitation can be delivered to the doorsteps of millions including the city’s slum dwellers. The visionary leader behind the transformation Engineer Taqsem A Khan, Managing Director and CEO of Dhaka WASA spoke to COLORS Business Magazine’s Advisory Editor Ziaul Karim and Asad Zaman about how Dhaka has become a global model city for safe water and sanitation. Rehnuma Karim, Ph.D. has the story.

Engineer Taqsem A Khan, Managing Director, and CEO of Dhaka WASA on the cover of COLORS Business’ December 2021 issue. Photographer: Kazi Mukul.

Great leaders can transform companies and one such success story of transformative leadership in Bangladesh took place under the visionary leadership of Taqsem A. Khan. He embodied the true essence of effective leadership that inspired action through creating a shared vision when he accepted the offer to lead the Government-run public utility company WASA in 2009. Along with all the dynamic changes he brought into the company such as producing surplus water for Dhaka, his novel approach to give access to uninterrupted water supply for slum dwellers in Dhaka city was not only heralded in the country but also the success inspired Kenya to replicate the program in their own slums under the name “Dhaka Model”.

With a background in Mechanical Engineering from the University in Moscow, a career in Philips Bangladesh as a production engineer and later joining International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDRB) as Chief Engineer from 1988 to 1998 Taqsem always seemed to possess an analytical mind for problem-solving. His experience as an extensive trainer while he was in the USA also sharpened his capacity to assess context and find creative solutions to difficult problems. Although Khan consciously never sought any position in the government service, his heart of a servant leader could not refuse the offer when he was asked to take charge of Dhaka WASA. He embraced his responsibilities with a sense of purpose as he believed that serving the people of Bangladesh for the greater good was a privilege.

When asked about how he was able to transform Dhaka WASA into one of the leading bankable Government-run companies of Bangladesh within a few years of his joining, he candidly talked about how he saw the need of setting a concrete vision that can aspire all towards a common goal. John Maxwell said, “Good leaders ask great questions.” Taqsem surely proved himself to be in line with such leaders as under his captaincy he decided to take a brief pause with the team when he took over WASA and asked all the pertinent questions to fix the rudder of his ship to reach the desired destination.

Engineer Taqsem A Khan is transforming the water systems of Dhaka by ensuring safe water for the vulnerable

He realized that Dhaka WASA needed to align its vision with the Honorable Prime Minister’s vision of the country for 2021 and 2041. The Bangladesh Vision 2021 focused on setting a framework of a future Bangladesh that reflects the hopes and aspirations of the citizens for an economically inclusive and politically accountable society. Keeping this vision in mind, Khan as the Managing Director of WASA asked all the right questions that led to building a strong vision for WASA, setting measurable goals, identifying the core problems, and tuning the company to the changes with the development of the country. Khan as a keen observant saw that WASA was running around on an ad-hoc basis and in randomness just going around doing day-to-day business of providing water to the people with no solid direction. Not that this goal is not important, but the proper fuel to drive such an institute requires a larger vision that connects to actionable goals and can define a new place where it wants to be. Thus, the following vision for WASA was created that led to a total restructuring of WASA under the “Dhaka WASA Turnaround Program” that aimed to make the company more progressive, versatile, and people-oriented.

The vision of WASA:
We want to be the best water utility in the public sector in South Asia.

Here the ‘best’ was further explained by him in terms of three aspects which are 1. Environmentally friendly, 2. Sustainable and 3. Pro-people.

Aligned with the Bangladesh Vision 2021 and 2041, he strategized to bring accountability to the whole system and made strides towards achieving SDG goal 6 by 2030, which is about ensuring access to clean water and sanitation for all.


While answering the question on what areas of WASA did he felt needed to be overhauled under the turnaround program, Taqsem mentioned the 5 major challenges to be conquered to put Dhaka WASA on the right track. The challenges are the traditional mindset of resistance, complications with bureaucracy, lack of transparency, unionism, and vested interest.

To overhaul the system, tackling these challenges upfront was a necessity. The transformation of WASA into the best water utility in the public sector in South Asia required a few bold steps focused initially on capacity building in the areas of administration, management techniques, and finance. Taqsem launched his strategic planning asking the most important question – ‘WHY’ WASA exists? And then applied his leadership skills to progress towards the “How” to make WASA what it was supposed to be? Once he was able to instill the knowledge on WASA’s purpose and how they would work, the rest of the goals emerged shaping the mindset of all the personnel across all sections.

He addressed the first challenge of mindset within the organization, building alternative sets of thoughts and attitudes for different programs that can adapt to the growth trajectory of the country. When people fail to change with the demand of time, it can be very disruptive and that is why; Khan knew that to build WASA as a successful public utility agency, the first thing that has to be transformed is the mindset.

Along with changing mindset, he also consciously aimed to curb corruption by implementing more transparency. When an organization lacks accountability, it can erode the system of trust at all levels enabling corruption. This is why; he directly went to the root of the problem removing the scopes of corruption making it harder for those to engage in unscrupulous activities. Once the mechanisms that were facilitating corruption were removed, the actual reform through transparency started to happen. A simple measure of setting up an irreversible meter automatically prevented corruption. Automation and paperless billing also became excellent tools for fighting corruption successfully.

Another action step for him under the restructuring process was to deal with the complications of bureaucracy. Bureaucratic complications always tend to become a barrier to development causing slower decision making, discouraging creativity, and customer dissatisfaction. He courageously addressed these issues under his leadership and has been able to overcome the problems with effective solutions and dialogues. The final two challenges that also needed to be addressed for the desired growth of WASA were unionism and vested interest. Although the challenges are not completely eradicated but definitely in a lower magnitude after the interventions.


Methodical and strategic planning with innovative approaches towards solving the challenges led WASA to move closer to the desired vision of becoming the best public utility sector in South Asia. The success was also acknowledged in the Asian Development Bank’s reports as remarkable strides were made in the last 12 years turning WASA into a highly bankable publicly owned corporate company.

The remarkable achievements of Dhaka WASA in 12 years under the resolute supervision of Khan were certainly remarkable as the successes in the following areas not only contributed to the development process of Bangladesh but also helped WASA earn trust and respect from the major international stakeholders and partners.

One of the major successes of WASA under the “Turnaround Program” was the reduction of system loss. The conversion of the distribution network from one to 145 clusters made a big difference as these digitized and hydrologically isolated clusters could now function independently, drastically reducing the problems with non-revenue water. The reduction of non-revenue water from 40% in 2010 to 5% in 2021 unquestionably placed WASA at the same level and in some cases in a better position than some of the high-performing countries of the world in water distribution. Increase in revenue income to 1506 Crore BDT in 2019-2020, reducing operating ratio from 0.90 to .62 whereas the global best practice is considered as 0.65, Asian Development Bank (ADB) recognizing Dhaka WASA as a “Role Model” to other developing countries of South Asia, digitalization of WASA with 27/7 paperless billing facility, bringing in 3.03 billion USD for investment in the water and sewage sector of Dhaka and introduction of Smart Water management are some of the highlights achieved within the 12 years of the Turnaround Program. Last but not the least, keeping aligned with SDG goal 6, WASA successfully managed to provide legal water connection to all Low-Income Communities (LIC) of Dhaka city.

Taqsem A Khan changing lives through water and sanitation provisions


One of the biggest challenges faced by Taqsem Khan while leading WASA was on giving water to low-income communities especially those who are living in the slum areas. Equitable access to water is everyone’s right, but as people living in slum areas did not have any holding number, allocating water to them was against WASA’s usual policy. But knowing what the right thing to do is, Khan, explored options to solve the problem through NGOs. The NGOs partnered with WASA and they built Community based Organizations (CBOs) assigning 10 households under one CBO and billing the designated CBO that collected the money through a shared billing process. This system took a large burden off of the shoulders of the people living in slums who had to pay a very high price for water previously and often became sick from using polluted and unclean water. Whereas water was wasted, illegally distributed, and priced beyond the normal range, this initiative resulted in a high recovering rate from billing at 95%. The phenomenon’s success motivated other developing countries to set up such models in their low-income communities as well and Kenya has already replicated it under the name “Dhaka Model”.

Akhi Akhtar
Akhi has been living in the slums of Korail since October 1999. She experienced hassles not having access to an adequate supply of water despite the houses there having water tanks, and the slum having little deep tube well. There was a well but it was serving all the household. The tubewells were also not functioning properly that caused more water crisis. To have water for her household, she had to stay awake late at night and also had to go to the neighboring areas to collect water. As the slums didn’t have access to legal water supply system installed — they even had to buy water illegally from businesses in Banani and Gulshan that costed 1000 taka for an hour of water supply via illegal lines. The high cost of having water had to be shared by several households based on minutes of usage. Women had it the hardest as they had to sacrifice time, option for working for collecting water. They even arranged many protests to make their plight heard.
Now she is grateful to WASA as the low income community is no longer suffering from the problems they faced earlier. After collaborating with NGOs—- WASA placed a water pump and DSC managed to provide access to legalized water supply and even with VAT and tax , the water is now affordable for them. The area is now getting uninterrupted water WASA in a legal process and they feel an ownership as they are happy to be billed based on meter reading. Of course there are still some challenges to overcome such as one of the pump breaking down few days ago and the burden to provide water fell on the other pump which created problem. The Korail Low Income Communities had been enjoying legal water supply since 2012. Progress is happening slowly as 1300 meters have been installed and waiting on 1700 more.

Fatema Akhtar
Fatema Akhtar runs a small NGO locally that works towards improving the lives of the people in the low income areas, especially in the slums of Dhaka City. She too was grateful for WASA’s Initiative to create provisions for the community to have access to legalized water supply. The slum before 2012 didn’t have access to any legalized service of water which created arrays of difficulties in their lives. The women of the community had to go to the neighboring areas to get one pitcher of water for the family and often were required to wash and clean pans and plates for the people in that area for free. Not only did they have to pay for illegal water supply at high cost but they also were not getting clean water as often the stolen lines were brought through the drainage system that was connected with the sewerage system. This is why, the water made the residents of the Korail slum sick and ICCDRB would always be filled with patients the area.  As mostly women were the ones who collected water— incidents such as pregnant women having miscarriages, older women falling and breaking their bones seemed to be daily occurrences. Women in the area could not look for jobs or be at jobs as they had to waste so much time both days and nights in collecting water resulting in disempowerment and financial problems.
After the installation of legalized water lines and pumps in the Korail slum by WASA, much of these problems were resolved. Along with WASA she also thanked Dusto Shashti  Kendro (DSK) for the support. The Karail slum’s residents also cooperated a lot to make this happen. According to her, they all took active part to mobilized themselves for getting the connections, and setting up the water pumps. The established Community Branch Offices (CBO) also played a very important role in the process. The whole environment of Karail slum now have transformed ensuring better quality of life for all in terms of health, empowerment of women and hassle free life. The low income families used to suffer a lot from health issues such as Diarrhea, Hepatitis B and many other kidney related diseases which now have been eradicated significantly. She added, “Our community didn’t suffer from COVID-19 as we all feared mainly because the inhabitants already developed hand washing habits when the households started to have access to water. The local NGOS did teach us how to wash hands even long before COVID happened.” With billing she mentioned that they hardly ever left any bills unpaid. But there are still rooms for improvement. Sometimes when the meters are not working, the misreading of meters conducted by local offices creates issues and problems for the Korail residents. Lack of timely maintenance of the installed pump for uninterrupted water also adds to the hassles. Ms. Akhtar said, “We are grateful that we didn’t have to pay anything extra for installing the legal connections but localized offices need to be monitored carefully by the head office for further efficiency and effectiveness of this commendable initiative.”  


When asked about the current state for reaching the vision, Khan optimistically replied that WASA has a clear road map till 2035 reaching all the aspects of the grand vision of being the ‘Best’ public utility sector in Asia. With support from investors such as World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and other interested stakeholders, WASA Is already in the process of making major technical changes to become a more environmentally friendly and sustainable organization. Among many targets, one of his ambitions for WASA is to shift from the 34% present use of surface water to 70% utilization that would be more sustainable and align with the SDG 12, which focuses on responsible consumption and production and also SDG 11 of building sustainable cities and communities.

In the beginning, Dhaka WASA’s water supply depended 87% on underground extraction and only 13% depended on the utilization of surface water which was not at all environmentally friendly. But under the ‘Turn around Program’, WASA managed to bring some positive changes through the ‘Master Plan’ as the ratio is now 34% surface water use and 66% underground extraction. He mentioned the undertaking of several Megaprojects that are about to be completed which would transform the whole system for the better.

Dhaka no longer experiences water shortage and now WASA has become a self-reliant public entity that is bringing dynamism through effective change management. Through the strength of good governance, human resource management, initiatives to curb corruption, taking innovative approaches to serve the people, and working towards a collective vision for the organization and the country, Taqsem Khan is surely exemplifying the essence of effective leadership with integrity and determination.

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