The long walk for potable water in Bangladesh

Frequent natural disasters such as cyclones, and rising sea levels have contaminated water sources in coastal Bangladesh, forcing rural women to trek several kilometres every day to fetch water for their families.

Rafiqul Islam Montu
| Updated: March 16th, 2021

Local people say they struggle to find water all twelve months of the year. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

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. For, 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. She takes 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 — till embankments were built.

Hundreds of women like Aleya in this village, about 402 kilometres from national capital Dhaka, bear the brunt of this —  nationally, this number touches five million women. According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), Bangladesh is one of the 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, do not have access to safe water.

These women have to cross inaccessible roads to collect drinking water. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

Frequent natural disasters such as cyclones, and rise in sea level 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.

Also Read: About 40% women in rural India work harder to fetch water in the COVID-19 lockdown

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.

The women and children of the house go to collect drinking water in the morning and in the afternoon. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

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 told Gaon Connection.

Sufia Begum, a resident of the hanging 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, through a trawler.

Drum-filled drinking water is delivered to the houses. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

In Gabura dwip union of Shyamnagar upazila in Satkhira, thousands of people face water scarcity, annually. Zarina Khatun of Laxikhali village here 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 twelve months of the year, but it gets very difficult in the summer months of March, April and May,” Tapas Kumar Mandal, a school teacher who resides in Talbaria village of Atulia union of Shyamnagar upazila, told Gaon Connection.

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 through various steps have been taken at the public and private level, there has been no resolution.

Also Read: The Hungry Tide: As the river swallows their land, villagers in Bangladesh turn environmental refugees

In its 2019 report titled ‘Finding fresh water in a changing climate’, the water committee made up of local civil society working on the water crisis, 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 south-west 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, 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.

These women have to collect water from far away. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

Climate change, rising sea level 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 salt water was entering groundwater sources from the Bay of Bengal. In April-May last year, salt water 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 is 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 south-west coast, has a role to play in the water crisis, M Zakir Hossain Khan, climate finance analyst with Transparency International, Bangladesh, told Gaon Connection. 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 seventeen per cent of land. The salty water at the top of the ocean settles down, increasing groundwater salinity,” he told Gaon Connection. 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, told Gaon Connection 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 in shallow tube wells.

Also Read: In Deep Waters: Is climate change impacting the reproductive health of women in coastal Bangladesh?

Tackling salinity

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

Some people store drinking water in earthenware containers in this way. Photo: Rafiqul 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 of the water committee are —  include drinking water salinity in the National Water Policy and National Water Management Plan; the government should dig at least one pond in every affected village; ensure availability of salt-free potable water to all; and supply of fresh water for agricultural and household purposes.

Arrangements have been made to supply water at community level in some areas. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

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 told Gaon Connection.

Mallick said the government is focussing 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.

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

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

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