POST TIME: 2 January, 2018 00:00 00 AM
Potable water crisis in southwest Bangladesh
It is well known that the scarcity of drinking water is acute as freshwater aquifers are not available at suitable depths and surface water is highly saline in southwest Bangladesh
Mohammed Norul Alam Raju

Potable water crisis in southwest Bangladesh

Last week, I went to visit some of the villages of Shyamanagr Upazilla under Statkhira district and Dacope Upazilla under Khulna district. During my visit, I talked with Aleya Begum, a 25 year old woman who lived in Sutarkhali Union of Dacope Upzazilla. Waking up before dawn every day, Aleya Begum walks to a water plant five kilometres away to collect fresh drinking water for her 6 member family. It will be midday or even later before she returns home to her village. Without the five kilometres trek through an uneven path to the Sutarkhali Union Parishad where the pond water is treated, there will be no water for cooking and drinking.

Though the walk itself takes two hours, the 25-year-old says she has to queue up for much of the day to get her turn at the water point. Not only for Aleya Begum, this is the every day routine for thousands of people of Sutarkhali and many of the unions in the coastal districts including Khulna, Satkhira, Bagerhat in the Southwest Bangladesh.

It is well known that the scarcity of drinking water is acute as freshwater aquifers are not available at suitable depths and surface water is highly saline in Southwest Bangladesh. Households are mainly dependent on some of the limited water technologies including Rain Water Harvesting (RWH), Pond Sand Filters (PSF), Reverse Osmosis (RO), Deep Tube wells and pond water for drinking purposes. Except pond water, all the listed technologies are expensive and not affordable by the poor communities. Thus, they drink poisoned water from the local sources.     

Therefore, individuals in these areas often suffer from waterborne diseases. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that four out of five cases of child mortality in the areas are related to contaminated drinking water. The lack of access to clean water leads to increased rates of disease, lower attendance rates at school and work, and a drastic reduction in overall life quality. According to a 2012 government study by Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE), 61per cent of the coastal region’s population faces serious health issues. With not enough water, women and young girls are amongst the worst sufferers. As coastal women drink less water, high blood pressure, heart diseases and kidney diseases are common that affects the health of new born babies.

In addition to that, most people in the region are unaware of the increasing salinity and its implications. According to a new study carried by the DPHE and the Institute of Water Modelling, 84 per cent of the people don’t know about salinity in groundwater in the country’s coastal region.

During devastating cyclone Aila in 2009, almost all the freshwater sources were destroyed in Southwest Bangladesh where situation did not improve even after 10 years of that event. In most places, tube-wells don’t work because of salinity in the shallow and deep aquifer levels. The embankments are eroded and groundwater sources are flooded, therefore, about 70 percent of the people in the region depend on pond water for drinking and domestic uses.

Due to the impact of climate change, the daily struggle of thousands of Aleya Begum is being exacerbated. Over the past 25 years, salinity intrusion in Bangladesh has increased by about 26 percent with the affected area expanding each year. According to a study by the World Bank, climate change is likely to further increase river and groundwater salinity dramatically by 2050 and aggravate the shortage of drinking water and irrigation in the southwest coastal areas of Bangladesh, adversely affecting the livelihoods of at least 2.9 million poor people in a region where 2.5 million people are already struggling with a lack of water (River salinity and climate change: evidence from coastal Bangladesh, World Bank, 2014). As a result, as water sources dry up and demand increase, women like Aleya Begum are forced to walk further and further to provide water for their family.

Despite the passes of 10 years of cyclone Aila, the government of Bangladesh and many other non-government organisations are yet to restore freshwater sources in the country’s coastal belt. This is primarily because of lack of water flow in rivers which contributes to the rise of salinity, diversity and the remoteness of the areas, diversity of the problems and lack of sustainable and joint initiatives. The water plants built by the different authorities becomes non functional within shortest span of time due to extreme level of salinity and the lack of regular maintenance where awareness of the local people is an issue.

Recently, Nobo Jatra, a USAID funded project conducted a study on finding the availability and the options of surface and ground water in Khulna and Satkhira districts which clearly defines that no single option or technology could be recommended for providing safe water in salinity prone areas. Depending on the local situation, the appropriate technology should be used in an area for supply of safe drinking water which is complex. Exploring Tube-well technology would be the first priority if suitable aquifer is available; otherwise surface water or treatment technologies could be utilised.

The study has shown that the deep Tube-well is the most preferable water option where suitable deep aquifer with low-salinity water is available. But suitable ground water is absent in most of the places and is expensive too. Pond Sand Filter (PSF) is a promising option for community water supply where suitable pond is available. But maintenance and management is an issue where mass mobilisation is a prerequisite. For existing PSF, pond re-excavation, cleaning, lime mixing on each edge side for protection of saline water intrusion is needed. Though it is seasonal and expensive for the poor and extreme poor households, Rain Water Harvesting (RWH) system appears to be a suitable option at household and community level.

In the last decade, the government had taken various steps to resolve water problems in the coastal region. Dredging of Gorai River is one of them. It is expected that the flow of river water will increase in the coastal region, thereby cutting salinity problems and freshwater sources also will be restored, eventually, the salinity problem will be resolved. A combination of household and community-based options could be suitable for year-round water supply. Community-based options need regular maintenance. In addition to installation of water supply facilities, it is necessary to make the residents aware of proper operation and maintenance of the facilities.

The southwest region is surrounded by a numbers of rivers. But due to extreme level of salinity and lack of long term sustainable solutions, the people in coastal belt are suffering from scarcity of potable water. The sufferings remind us a verse from the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘water water everywhere and not a drop to drink’.

Mohammed Norul Alam Raju is Technical Program Director – Nobo Jatra at World Vision Bangladesh