Last week, I went to visit some of the villages of Shyamanagr Upazila under Shatkhira district and Dacope Upazila under Khulna district. During my visit, I talked with Aleya Begum, a 25 years old woman who lives in Sutarkhali Union of Dacope Upazila.
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. Without five kilometres trekking through an uneven path and without any transportation support or without any path to the plant near 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 every day routine for thousands of people of Sutarkhali and many of the unions in the coastal districts including Khulna, Satkhira, Bagerhat 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 the area. 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 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), 61% 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, most people in the region are unaware of the increasing salinity and its many implications. According to a new study carried by the DPHE and the Institute of Water Modelling, 84% of people don’t know about salinity in groundwater in the country’s coastal region.
During the devastating cyclone Aila in 2009, almost all the freshwater sources were destroyed in southwest Bangladesh where situation did not improve even 10 years after 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 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 Begums 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 exacerbate shortages 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 increases, women like Aleya Begum are forced to walk further and further to collect water for their families.
Despite passage of 10 years after Aila, the government of Bangladesh and many other non-government organizations 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 initiates. The water plants built by different authorities become non-functional within shortest span of time due to extreme level of salinity and lack of regular maintenance where awareness of local people is an issue.
Recently, Nobo Jatra, a USAID funded project conducted a study on finding 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, appropriate technology should be used in an area for supply of safe drinking water which is a complex problem. Exploring tube-well technology would be the first priority if suitable aquifer is available; otherwise surface water or treatment technologies could be utilized.
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 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 mobilization is a prerequisite. For existing PSF, pond re-excavation, cleaning, lime mixing on each edge side for preventing 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 levels.
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 will also be restored, eventually, the salinity problem will be resolved. Along with, a combination of household and community-based options could be suitable for year-round water supply while 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 numbers of rivers where water is everywhere. But due to extreme level of salinity and 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’.
The writer is Technical Program Director – NoboJatra at World Vision Bangladesh. The writer can be contacted to: