Last week, I went to visit some of the villages in Shyamanagr upazila, Satkhira and Dacope upazila, Khulna. During my visit, I talked with Aleya Begum, a 25-year-old woman who lives in Sutarkhali union in Dacope upazila.
Waking up before dawn every day, Aleya Begum walks to a water treatment facility 5km away to collect fresh drinking water for her family of six -- it will be midday or even later before she returns home.
Without the 5km trek, there will be no water for her family.
Though the walk itself takes two hours, the 25-year-old says she has to queue up for most of the day to get her turn. This is a daily routine not only for Aleya Begum, but also thousands of others in Sutarkhali and many of the unions in the coastal districts including Khulna, Satkhira, Bagerhat in the Bangladesh’s south-western region.
It is well known that the scarcity of drinking water is acute, as fresh-water aquifers are not available at suitable depths and surface water is highly saline in south-west Bangladesh. Households are mainly dependent on some of the limited water technologies including rain water harvesting (RWH), pond sand filters (PSF), reverse osmosis (RO), deep tube wells, and pond water for drinking purposes.
Except pond water, all the listed technologies are expensive and not affordable for the poor communities. Thus, they drink non-potable water from local sources.
Poisoning the well
Therefore, individuals in these areas often suffer from waterborne diseases. The WHO estimates that four out of five cases of child mortality in these areas are related to contaminated drinking water. The lack of access to clean water leads to increased rates of disease, lower attendance rates at school and work, and a drastic reduction in overall life quality.
According to a 2012 government study by the Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE), 61% of the coastal region’s population faces serious health issues. With not enough water available, women and young girls are amongst the worst sufferers. As coastal women drink less water, high blood pressure, heart diseases, and kidney diseases are common, affecting the health of newborn babies.
In addition, most people in the region are unaware of the increasing water salinity.
During the devastating cyclone Aila in 2009, almost all the fresh-water sources were destroyed in south-west Bangladesh. In most places, tube-wells don’t work because of salinity in the shallow and deep aquifer levels.
Due to the impact of climate change, the daily struggle of thousands of Aleya Begum are being exacerbated. Over the past 25 years, salinity intrusion in Bangladesh has increased by about 26% with the affected area expanding each year.
Blame climate change
Due to the impact of climate change, the daily struggle of thousands of others like Aleya Begum is being exacerbated. Over the past 25 years, salinity intrusion in Bangladesh has increased by about 26% with the affected area expanding each year.
According to a World Bank study, climate change is likely to further increase river and ground-water salinity dramatically by 2050, and exacerbate shortages of drinking water and irrigation in the south-west coastal areas of Bangladesh, adversely affecting the livelihoods of at least 2.9 million poor people in a region.
Even 10 years after cyclone Aila, the government and many NGOs are yet to restore fresh-water sources in the country’s coastal belt.
This is primarily because of lack of water flow in rivers which contributes to the rise of salinity.
Recently, Nobo Jatra, a USAID-funded project, conducted a study on finding availability and the options of surface-water and ground-water in Khulna and Satkhira districts which clearly indicates that not a single solution or technology can be recommended for providing safe water in salinity prone areas.
Depending on the local situation, the appropriate technology to be used to supply safe drinking water is complex.
Overcoming the hurdles
The studies have shown that the deep tube-well is the most preferable water option, where suitable deep aquifer with low-salinity water is available. But suitable ground water is absent in most places, and it is expensive too. Pond Sand Filter (PSF) is a promising option for communal water supply, where suitable pond is available. But maintenance and management is an issue where mass mobilisation is a prerequisite.
In the last decade, the government has taken various steps to resolve water problems in the coastal region -- dredging of Gorai river is one of those steps. It is expected that the flow of river water will increase in the coastal region, thereby cutting salinity problems, and freshwater sources also will be restored; eventually, the salinity problem will be resolved.
In addition, a combination of household and community-based options could be suitable for a year-round water supply while community-based options need regular maintenance
The south-west region is surrounded by many rivers, but due to extreme levels of salinity and long-term sustainable solutions, the people in the coastal belt suffer from scarcity of potable water.
Such suffering naturally reminds me of a verse from Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:
“Water, water everywhere/ Nor any drop to drink.”
Mohammed Norul Alam Raju is the Technical Program Director, Nobo Jatra at World Vision Bangladesh.