While the government and non-profit organizations are doing their best to help out, it is still unlikely the plight of these people are going to end soon
Another cyclone season is here. Experience of the cyclone season varies from where you are reading this from. If you are reading this from the comfort of your home in Dhaka, you are one of the lucky ones. Your experience will start off with rainfall through a window and most likely will end with a social media post. However, that’s not always the case for the vulnerable people of the coastal belt, most of whom will likely end up in a cyclone shelter or will become homeless.
At least 14 major tropical cyclones have hit the country since 1965, which has left 479,490 people dead. According to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, Bangladesh is one of the worst sufferers of cyclones in terms of casualties. Although these numbers are changing, the impacts on the infrastructures are still something Bangladesh is struggling with. Cyclone Fani of 2019 had an economic impact of $63.6 million while Cyclone Amphan of 2020 has an economic impact of $1.5 billion. The most affected Upazilas were in the Khulna and Satkhira where 50% of the Upazila were hampered due to Amphan.
The coast of Bangladesh consists of 19 districts which covers 32% of the country and accommodates more than 35 million people (Huq and Rabbani, 2012). The coastal zone comprises the flat Ganges delta passed upon large tidal rivers discharging into the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh is now widely recognized to be one of the country’s most vulnerable to climate change and natural disaster.
Cyclone Amphan made landfall in Bangladesh on May 20, 2020. It destroyed homes, polders (low-lying areas of land surrounded by dikes or levees), embankments, roads, electricity poles, mobile phone towers, bridges and culverts, with the exact costs still being tallied. Many agricultural fields and fish farms were overwhelmed by the saltwater storm surge.
While it's evident that the intensity of cyclones are increasing, certain situations should be critically assessed to better understand the various small-scale impacts these have on the people of the coastal belt, especially the impacts of lack of drinking water. Believe it or not, women still have to travel 24km everyday to fetch water or have to live through saline water to earn a livelihood, a scenario that has not changed in the last decade since cyclone Aila.
Cyclone Amphan left Drishti-nondon, the biggest freshwater source ofGabura Union of Satkhira inundated. The whole region went under saline water from the adjacent meander, leaving around 800 families of Dumuria and Parshemari Mouza waterless for almost a month. Fortunately, the adjacent mouza’s water provided for them during this crisis phase. However, not all places were that lucky.
Gabura, a South-Western island, surrounded by Kholpetua River is considered as one of the most vulnerable places for living in Bangladesh due to its disadvantageous location. The re-curvature characteristics of tropical cyclones cause the disproportionally large impact in the landfall in this region and . Due to climate change, the magnitude and the frequency of cyclones are increasing day-by-day, and eventually exacerbating the vulnerability of the Gabura union.
Since the severe cyclonic storm Aila dismantled all the available water sources of Gabura, from ponds to tubewell, the people of this union have been facing the highest amount of suffering from freshwater scarcity. Various studies and on ground experience have shown that the effect from cyclone Aila of 2009 is still causing salinity problems. Tube-wells are not usable due to the presence of high salinity in the shallow and deep aquifer level. It also seems that problems are going to increase further in the near future if proper measures are not taken for the people of this region.
The increasing problems and consecutive effects on the water supply is causing numerous problems in that area. There is a significant number of people (almost 20% of unions) at risk of communicable diseases (eg, diarrhea, ARI and skin diseases) because of effects of drinking water supply and disruption in the sanitation systems which was stated on the recent joint assessment report after Cyclone Amphan.
Many governmental and nongovernmental organizations came up with technology interventions to minimize the crisis and sufferings due to freshwater scarcity of the people of this community. Ponds with pond sand filter (PSF), reserving rainwater in households and community level (Rainwater Harvesting), Water Treatment Plant are now the only major sources of safe drinking water. However, these alone can’t mitigate the problems of people who need to travel long distances, high saline water and climate uncertainty in that region.
Availability of potable water for drinking purposes is still a big challenge for the dwellers of Gabura. Drishti-nondon was introduced with a PSF as a suitable option for water supply. PSF is a simple technology which can treat rainwater reserved in a pond in, water is pumped from a pond and passed through a number of chambers containing sand and gravel. The treated water is usually considered safe for drinking. However, the functionality of PSFs depends upon availability of freshwater in the ponds and its maintenance.
In addition to the impacts of the recent cyclones, lack of regular follow-ups, contribution in terms of repair and maintenance of PSF and its adjacent pond after the cyclone had a major impact on the PSFs installed in Gabura. 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, which are much few to cater to the people of this region.
While the government and non-profit organizations are doing their best to help out, it is still unlikely the plight of these people is going to end soon. So, what will happen to these people? How do we ensure climate justice for the people of Gabura?
I want our readers to treat this article as a call for action. If you are an engineer, we need more climate resilient technologies in the coastal belt and especially a place like Gabura. If you are a business owner, we need your ideas to empower the marginalized communities situated in Gabura, if you are practicing medicine, please take some free time to go stand by these communities and lastly if you are an innovator, can you come up with an idea to ensure safe drinking water in that area?
Adnan Qader is working as Advocacy Officer at WaterAid Bangladesh.
Tahmida Sarker Muna is WaterAid Youth Advocate.