Hydram -- a potential solution for the water starved hilltacts

A sustainable water access solution for the Chittagong Hill Tracts is the need of the hour

While Bangladesh is generally known as a flat and low-lying country, with a mean elevation of 4 to 5 metres above sea level, an exception is the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) -- a high elevation region connecting the Himalayas to Bangladesh. And while the rest of the country is criss-crossed with rivers and water bodies, water is a scarce commodity in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This water stress is a common scenario across the Himalaya region spanning across countries including Nepal, India, and Pakistan, where the retreat of glaciers, primarily due to climate change, is drying up springs and affecting surface and ground water availability for over half a billion people.

Access to water is a severe challenge for the CHT residents, predominantly indigenous communities who depend on natural sources such as waterfalls, creeks, and chhoras -- narrow streams of water coming from hills. These water sources are drying up, primarily due to deforestation resulting from forest encroachment.

As a result, the communities are increasingly facing water shortages, especially during the dry season, with groundwater tables falling every year. The women and children are the worst sufferers as they are assigned to collect water for their families from any available sources.

They have to travel far from their village into deep forests to fetch water, and in some areas, they spend almost half a day in search of water as the treacherous trek often involves carrying water up and down steep hills.

Moreover, the available water sources are often contaminated as latrines are usually built close to streams and there are no sewerage or water purification systems, as a result of which waterborne diseases are prevalent in the Chittagong Hilltracts.

Solutions such as rainwater harvesting are capital intensive and require strong management, and tubewells are hard to construct in these areas due to the stone surface and the very low water levels in the hilly terrain.

The initiative

To generate learnings towards solving the water access issue of the CHT, UNDP Bangladesh Accelerator Lab, in collaboration with an international award winning grassroots organization Creative Conservation Alliance, is piloting a HYDRAM or hydraulic ramp pump system in one of the most remote villages of CHT.

Hydram is a relatively low cost, low-maintenance water pumping system capable of lifting water up to 600 vertical feet from the water source to the village up the hill. This is much higher than the capacity of existing pumps which can lift water upto a height of 150 feet.

This pump uses the natural power of water flowing downhill to lift the water and does not require any external energy sources or electricity to operate, and hence is environmentally sustainable. It includes a drip irrigation system and a solar powered RO filter which provides safe drinking water.

A diagram showing how Hydram works

The villagers can use the water for drinking, domestic chores, and for irrigation to grow crops during the dry season. Hydram has been proven to be effective in other mountainous regions of the world and can be very effective in CHT to help the local communities tackle water crisis.

To understand whether this solution would be effective in the local context, field survey was conducted and a test version has been implemented in Matamuhuri reserve forest which has led to some important learnings such as the need for strong community ownership, proximity of the hill stream, heavy flow of water and steep slope for the success of the initiative.

Based on these learnings an optimum hill stream and location was identified and extensive consultation was conducted with the local indigenous communities prior to implementation to ensure community ownership of this solution.

The solution capitalized on CCA’s strong rapport with the local communities as it has been working in the Sangu-Matamuhuri region on community based conservation for over a decade. Learning/knowledge generated from this initiative can be used as a blueprint to replicate this solution in other areas of the CHT to provide access to clean water. 

The way forward

Work is currently underway to install a Hydram in a Tripura (indigenous) village in Alikadam of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The communities living near the hill streams identified for pump installation were consulted throughout the period of location scoping. It was communicated to them that the Hydram will not affect land tenure.

Once community acceptance and understanding of the pump’s usefulness was observed, Bilarang para was finalized as the pilot project site. A conservation agreement has been made with the locals to protect and restore the community managed forests and ensure water flow of the natural hill streams. 

The solution is expected to generate learnings to help build resilience of the forest dependent indigenous communities of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and incentivize them to protect headwater sources for the natural water bodies. This can not only ensure access to safe water for people but also help protect the Chittagong Hill Tracts’ greenery -- one of the last remaining natural forests of Bangladesh. 

Sohara Mehroze Shachi is a freelance journalist.