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Dhaka Tribune

Safe Water: A constant struggle for survival in coastal areas

73% of the population living in the coastal region drink unsafe saline water

Update : 22 Mar 2022, 11:52 AM

Lokkhi Mondol, a housewife in Mongla Upazila of Bagerhat, has been struggling for water for as long as she can remember. The situation is so bad in her locality that she often feels embarrassed if someone asks for a glass of drinking water.

People living in the cities, having the luxury of getting running water by a mere press or twist of the knob of a tap, might consider themselves lucky compared to people like Lokkhi, who struggles for a drop of it.

Salinity has risen in all water sources of Mongla, making it impossible for human consumption. It also hampers the population’s agriculture, livelihood, and health.

In the last two decades, the intrusion of saltwater has worsened and acquiring safe water has become a struggle for survival for the community. 

Lokkhi is among many housewives in Mongla who have to walk kilometres multiple times a week to fetch fresh water for their families.

“No water you can see is drinkable; all of it is contaminated,” said Shahinur, another member of the community.

For families like Lokkhi and Shahinur, the drinking water crisis is severe and harvesting rainwater is their only affordable way to secure drinking water. 

Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

During the rainy season, which lasts for about three to four months, conditions are slightly easier as they can meet the demand with the help of rainwater.

But for the rest of the year, it is a constant toil. Therefore, people from the community store the rainwater in the monsoon and use it in dry weather when there is a scarcity.

Increasing sea levels and the resultant salinity in the coastal belts in Bangladesh are damaging drinkable groundwater reservoirs. Elsewhere, the season is getting dry every year, causing drought-like situations and depleting underground water shortages.

The situation is quite common in areas like Dakop, Koyra and Paikgacha upazilas of Khulna, Shyamnagar, Asashuni, Debhata and Kaliganj upazilas of Satkhira, and Mongla upazila of Bagerhat.

Nearby sources like ponds remain the key source of potable water for women, but after Cyclone Aila, the ponds have also turned saline. 

During summer, when natural resources are mostly inactive, people have to buy a litre of water for Tk1.

On the ground

A UNDP survey, conducted under a project titled, "Gender-responsive Coastal Adaptation (GCA)", found that 73% of the population living in five coastal upazilas have to drink unsafe saline water.

The survey was carried out on 66,234 households of 271,464 people living in 39 unions of Koyra, Dacope, Paikgachha of Khulna and Assasuni and Shyamnagar upazilas of Satkhira.

Although the permissible salinity level in drinking water is 1,000mg per litre, people in the surveyed areas consume water with average salinity between 1,427mg and 2,406mg per litre.

Many spend more than two hours daily to collect drinking water while they often have to walk for more than a kilometre to fetch the water from sources, it adds. 

People in more than 16% of households said they had to walk even more.

Even in the available drinking sources, the salinity level of 52% of ponds was higher than the salinity level of ponds elsewhere in the country. It was the same for 77% of tubewells in the coastal region.

Prof Dilip Kumar Dutta of the Department of Environmental Science of Khulna University said the solution to the problem of salinity intrusion lay with the management of water usage.

He mentioned that contrary to popular belief, the salinity crisis was not just confined to the remotest coastal areas. Urban areas were also facing it acutely.

"Due to the population density, the urban hubs of Khulna, Jessore, Satkhira, Bagerhat are facing a scarcity of freshwater and it is going to be a huge crisis very soon," Prof Dutta added.

According to the academic, water in the coastal area is expected to be saline. Due to natural hazards, the situation is almost out of one’s hands. 

He further said: “However, still the solution lies within nature-based solutions of preserving freshwater. For example, through utilizing water from other areas of the country which have abundant sources of freshwater.

“At the same time, we need to go back to our indigenous practices of just hundreds of years ago when we used to collect water in large lakes. As a nation we have to be frugal about using water.”

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