The long walk for water in Bangladesh

DAKOP UPAZILA, Bangladesh _ Every morning Aleya Begum looks up at the sky with a prayer in her heart and hope in her eyes. The southwest monsoon is still three months away. The 39-year-old resident of Sutarkhali village in Dakop upazila (sub-district) of Khulna district in Bangladesh has to walk many kilometres every day to fetch water for her family. While she lives in a country surrounded by water, she is assured of good water supply only during the rainy season.

The remaining eight or nine months of the year, Aleya has to travel long distances to fetch water. It takes her an hour-and-a-half to bring home one pitcher of water. She rations water to finish work and heads out again in the afternoon to fetch another pitcher. Sutarkhali, where Aleya lives, was badly damaged in the 2009 Aila cyclone, and the area was submerged for about five years — contaminating all drinking water sources — until embankments were built.

Hundreds of women like Aleya in this village, about 402 kilometres from the national capital Dhaka, bear the brunt of these circumstances —  nationally, this number touches five million women. According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), Bangladesh is one of the top 10 countries that do not have access to safe water. At present about 30 million people in Bangladesh, mostly residing in coastal and hilly areas, lack this vital resource.

Woman and child collecting water
The women and children of the house go to collect drinking water in the morning and afternoon / Credit: Rafiqul Islam Montu

Frequent natural disasters, such as cyclones, and rise in sea levels have ensured a profusion of saline water, and now, habitations are far removed from potable water sources. Experts lay the blame for the water crisis on climate change. The burden of this is borne mostly by women in coastal areas, who have to trek several kilometres to fetch water. The distance to reach potable water is growing longer by the year.

There is saline water in the remote villages of Dakop and Koyra in Khulna, which is on the west coast of Bangladesh, and in Shyamnagar and Asashuni upazilas of Satkhira district.

Women, men and children walk across areas full of saline water, with pitchers, buckets, drums, jugs and whatever else they can carry, to bring back some drinking water.

Those who can afford to, buy water at great cost. When guests drop in, the family does not worry about feeding them, but about supplying them with a glass of water.

Destruction of water reservoirs

Halima Begum from Kalabagi village in Dakop upazila, has to walk five kilometres for a pitcher of water.

“There was a time when I fetched water from the pond near my house. After Cyclone Aila, the pond turned saline,” she said.

Sufia Begum, a resident of the stilted village of Kalabagi, where houses are built above the ground to prevent flooding, said that for several years now, drinking water has been brought from Dakop, 24 km away, in drums on a trawler.

In Gabura dwip union of Shyamnagar upazila in Satkhira, thousands of people face water scarcity annually. Zarina Khatun of Laxikhali village walks three to five kilometres every day with family members — each collects a jug of potable water.

“There is no substitute for potable water for survival. We struggle to find water all 12 months of the year, but it gets very difficult in the summer months of March, April and May,” said Tapas Kumar Mandal, a school teacher who resides in Talbaria village of Atulia union of Shyamnagar upazila.

Mohammad Shahjahan Moral of Kurikahunia village in Asashuni upazila said the water crisis in the west coast of Bangladesh has grown more severe in the past five years, and though various steps have been taken at the public and private level, there has been no resolution.

In its 2019 report titled ‘Finding fresh water in a changing climate,' the water committee -- made up of local civil society members working on the water crisis and led by non-profit Uttaran -- said extracting fresh water becomes very difficult due to the presence of silt in the numerous underground water sources in the southwest coast of Bangladesh.

The committee observed that the depth of deep tube wells in the southwestern coastal areas ranges between 700 and 1,200 feet. Tests have shown the water in these tube wells is comparatively less saline and arsenic free. However, due to excess silt, the presence of rocks and high salinity, it is not possible to install deep tube wells in all coastal areas.

This is especially the case in Koyra, Paikgacha and Dakop in Khulna district; Asashuni of Satkhira district; Shyamnagar, Debhata, Kaliganj and Mongla of Bagerhat district and Sarankhola upazila.

Drinking water drums
Drums filled with drinking water are delivered to the houses / Credit: Rafiqul Islam Montu

Climate change, rising sea levels and salinity ingress

A 2018 study, ‘Providing Saltwater Intrusion in the Groundwater of the Southern Region,’ by the Minor Irrigation Information Service Unit of the Bangladesh Agriculture Development Corporation showed that saltwater was entering groundwater sources from the Bay of Bengal. In April-May last year, saltwater was found in the Madhumati river at Lohagarh in Narail district, about 200 kilometres from the sea.

A 2017 study by the Soil Resources Development Institute of the Bangladesh government found salinity levels in rivers near the sea have increased significantly, and linger for longer. It said the soil salinity had also increased over 10 years from 2005-2015 from 7.6 to 15.9 parts per thousand (ppt). The accepted level is 0.4 to 1.8 ppt.

Sources say that out of 1.17 million hectares of agricultural land in the Barisal division, 386,870 hectares are extremely saline. Salinity has also increased in the rivers of Patuakhali, Bhola, Pirojpur and Barisal districts.

Cyclone Aila, which affected about five million marginalised people in 64 upazilas of 11 districts on the southwest coast, has a role to play in the water crisis, said M Zakir Hossain Khan, climate finance analyst with Transparency International, Bangladesh. Soil salinity has also reduced vegetation by alarming levels, and aquatic animals, including fish, are perishing due to increasing salinity, he added.

“Bangladesh will probably be the most affected by climate change,” said Atiq Rahman, climate change expert and executive director of Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, a policy institute for sustainable development.

“The coastal region is flat. Even if water rises by one metre, it will damage 17 percent of land. The salty water at the top of the ocean settles down, increasing groundwater salinity."

The salinity is also due to the declining flow of water in the upper Ganges, Rahman added.

Jayant Mallick, deputy assistant engineer of Dakop upazila’s public health engineering department, said that neither deep tube wells nor shallow tube wells are effective in Dakop upazila. He said deep tube wells could not be installed as there was no soil layer in the area and there were problems with shallow tube wells.

Tackling salinity

People have now taken their fate into their own hands. In Kalabagi and Gunari villages of Dakop upazila, the local people store as much rainwater as possible in storage tanks during the monsoon. Meanwhile, about 2,000 families benefit from the services of two private development agencies that desalinate water.

Rainwater containers
Arrangements have been made to supply water at the community level in some areas / Credit: Rafiqul Islam Montu

A water committee comprising local citizens has been working for several years to solve the water problem in the southwest coast of Bangladesh. Shafiqul Islam, chairperson of the committee, said a realistic plan must be adopted to resolve the water crisis and implemented at the national level.

Among the main demands the water committee is making of the government are: Include drinking water salinity in the National Water Policy and National Water Management Plan; dig at least one pond in every affected village; ensure the availability of salt-free potable water to all; and supply of freshwater for agricultural and household purposes.

Dilip Kumar Dutt, professor of environment at Khulna University, said there was a crisis with regard to groundwater recharge: The amount of groundwater being pumped is not being replaced.

“To solve the drinking water crisis, the government should repair ponds, canals and rivers. Leasing of water sources should be stopped, and we have to build an integrated water supply system for the rural areas,” he said.

Mallick said the government is focusing on the use of surface water to provide drinking water to affected villages.

“We took the initiative to dig a pond and install a pond sand filter. Earlier, there were at least 500 such filters in the upazila, from where people could collect drinking water. But these filters were damaged due to various reasons, including natural disasters. Now there are just 50 filters left in the entire upazila, he said.

PSF filter
This PSF filter was installed by the government to supply drinking water. Most of them are useless or destroyed by natural disasters / Credit: Rafiqul Islam Montu

He said the government had taken the initiative to implement a new project in the area from the Green Climate Fund to address the drinking water crisis. The project will cover Dakop, Koyra and Paikgachha upazilas of Khulna district. Women, in particular, will be involved in this project.

But until these policies take into account the suffering of people who are surrounded by water and still go thirsty, there is little hope that floats.

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

Banner image: The women pictured here have to cross inaccessible roads to collect drinking water / Credit: Rafiqul Islam Montu

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