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Tackling a climate-induced water crisis

May 18, 2024
topic:Health and Sanitation
tags:#Bangladesh, #water access, #health, #women's rights
by:Piyas Biswas
Climate change is heightening salinity in Bangladesh's coastal waters and lands, exacerbating clean water scarcity and increasing health issues from salt water consumption.

"In this coastal area, water is everywhere as far as the eye can see. But there is very little water that is safe to drink," Mosammad Sakhina Khatun, 27, a resident of Khalshibuniya village in Bangladesh's Satkhira district, told FairPlanet. This coastal district has been severely impacted by human-caused climate change.

Most coastal villages in the Shyamnagar sub-district of Satkhira face an acute fresh water shortage. During the rainy season, they survive by collecting and storing rainwater for six months, but for the rest of the year, residents face a severe water crisis. To collect fresh water, people must walk or ride bicycles for miles.

Shyamnagar is located in the southwest part of Bangladesh, close to the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world. This area clearly illustrates the impact of climate change on both nature and human communities.

Sakhina Khatun, a mother of two, told FairPlanet that before her marriage and move to Shyamnagar, she was unaware of the severe lack of fresh water in the area.

She grew up in a village near Satkhira city, where she never had to worry about water scarcity. But since moving to Shyamnagar, she has confronted a harsh reality. With no clean water system nearby, she walks about two kilometers every day to fetch clean water for her family, making the journey once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

She explained, "Our family needs around 30-40 litres of fresh water daily for drinking, cooking and other daily chores. Collecting this water takes up a big part of my day. We can't give the children salty water as it would make them sick."

Typically, it is women and girls in the family who assume the task of collecting fresh water. Farzana Yasmin Lima, a 14-year-old seventh grade student from Shyamnagar's Nil Dumur area, shared, "I've been helping my mother fetch water since I was 11. It makes her happy and lightens her load. After school or playing in the afternoon, I pitch in to help my mother."

According to data from Satkhira district's Public Health Engineering department, 22 per cent of people in Khulna, 15 per cent in Bagerhat and 13 per cent in Satkhira are experiencing scarcity of clean water. 

Furthermore, the World Bank reports that out of the 30 million people living in Bangladesh's coastal area, 2.5 million are experiencing a severe fresh water crisis. A study by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) indicates that 73 per cent of residents in five coastal sub-districts of Satkhira have to drink saline water daily.

Health impacts 

Local women have reported that fetching water from distant sources is not only time-consuming but also poses a risk to their health. As they carry heavy pitchers, many suffer from back pain.

Additionally, because people often bathe in the river or use salty water, they frequently suffer from diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, jaundice and skin issues.

Moreover, diseases specific to women, such as genital cancer, have also begun to emerge in the area. Many residents have resigned themselves to accepting these illnesses as a part of their daily lives.

Doctor Tariqul Islam from Shyamnagar Health Complex said that people in Bangladesh's coastal area grapple with such diseases year-round as due to their lack of access to clean water. The number of patients, however, increases during the summer, according to Tariqul Islam.

"We're continuously working to raise awareness among patients and encourage them to use clean water," he added.

The roots of the crisis

Natural disasters, unregulated shrimp and crab farming, lack of high embankments around shrimp farms, obstruction of river flow, pond filling and encroachment of canals are major contributors to the severe shortage of safe water in marginalised areas of Bangladesh.

Dr Abdullah Harun Chowdhury, professor of Environmental Science at Khulna University, explained, "The fresh water problem in coastal areas stems from two main factors: natural and man-made. Naturally, increasing water salinity due to climate change is a concern.

"Additionally, unregulated shrimp and crab farming in saltwater ponds is exacerbating the issue, making surrounding areas salty. Moreover, excessive groundwater extraction is depleting drinkable water sources rapidly."

He recommends that shrimp and crab farming be carefully planned, choosing suitable locations and raising awareness at personal, social and political levels. He also pointed out that influential individuals who seek profit be involved in this type of farming, highlighting the need for regulation.

He further emphasised the importance of maintaining river and canal navigability in the region.

But it isn't only agricultural practices that contribute to exacerbating Bangladesh’s freshwater crisis; natural disasters and erratic climate patterns play a critical role as well. 

Cyclones Sidr in 2007, Aila in 2009 and Amphan in 2020 caused widespread damage, displacing communities and disrupting vital infrastructure in these coastal areas. But their impact extends far beyond the immediate aftermath: These cyclones changed the water dynamics of the region, as storm surges and saltwater intrusion encroached on freshwater reserves, making them scarce and salty.

Mostafizur Rahman, assistant engineer at the Department of Public Health Engineering in Shyamnagar, told FairPlanet, "The surface water sources in this area have decreased significantly. Also due to the decline of underground water level, the water flow in the tube wells has dropped as well."  

How did the government respond?

In Shyamnagar, toughly 8,000 water sources managed by the public health department, including Pressure Sand Filters (PSF), Rain Water Harvesting (RWH) systems, deep and shallow tube wells, Reverse Osmosis (RO) units, ponds, and Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR), aim to address the water issue. But the effectiveness of RWH systems and PSFs is hampered by insufficient rainfall, saltwater intrusion from floods and the drying up of ponds and reservoirs.

Rahman noted that in Shyamnagar, people have access to clean water through 2,500 government-owned tube wells, 530 Pressure Sand Filters (PSFs), and 5 Reverse Osmosis (RO) systems. Additionally, 22 ponds have been re-excavated to maintain water levels. Around 3,000 families have also benefited from the installation of home water tanks for rainwater collection.

Those who must travel far to fetch water, however, do not have any of these government-owned water sources near their homes.

Rahman also noted that water containing 150-600 mg of chloride per liter is generally considered potable. However, the underground water in these regions now contains 3,500-4,500 mg of chloride per liter, which makes it completely unsuitable for drinking.

NGOs, private sector step in

In addition to government efforts, the private sector in Bangladesh has also launched initiatives to tackle the freshwater crisis. One such project, "Probaho," has built eight water purification plants featuring modern reverse osmosis technology in the Assasuni, Nalta and Shyamnagar areas of Satkhira. These plants reportedly benefit nearly 20,000 residents out of the 359,244 living in Shyamnagar Upazila.

Abu Salman Muhammad Abdullah from the Probaho plant stated, "We use state-of-the-art reverse-osmosis (RO) technology. This technology purifies any water source, including surface and underground water, making it safe for drinking.

"Essential minerals are naturally reintroduced into the purified water, ensuring it meets the standards for safe consumption, regardless of the source - be it a canal, river or the Bay of Bengal. We are supporting our government in its efforts to ensure safe water for all."

Water plants in rural areas often face damage due to insufficient maintenance. To address this, maintenance responsibilities are assigned to a committee comprised of local villagers. Typically, water from NGO-operated filters is sold for 0.3 - 0.4 cents per liter.

Although this price may seem low, it is a significant expense for the villagers, who must regularly buy clean water.

"For my family, we've been purchasing drinking water for 0.4 cents per litre from a water plant located one kilometre away from our home," Horoshito Joyaddar, a resident of Shyamnagar's Burigoalini village, told FairPlanet.

"Previously, we used to drink water from a nearby pond, which led to various waterborne illnesses throughout the year. It's challenging for middle-class families like ours to afford and access clean water with our limited income, and fetching water from a distance consumes a lot of our time and effort as well. Any long-term solution for access to free water would greatly benefit us."

The Bangladesh Resource Center for Indigenous Knowledge (BARCIK), a non-profit development organisation, has been working in the Satkhira region since 2001 to ensure access to safe water by emphasising Indigenous knowledge.

BARCIK emphasises re-excavating ponds and planting palm, coconut and neem trees to fortify the banks, allowing more rainwater to be stored during the monsoon seasons. This water is subsequently treated for human consumption through Pressure Sand Filter (PSF) technology.

So far, BARCIK reportedly aided in the re-dredging of about 80 ponds, benefiting around 14,000 people who depend on these water sources.

"There are several privately owned ponds in the region that require re-excavation every few years," Ram Krishno Joardar, BARCIK's regional coordinator in Satkhira, told FairPlanet. "Due to natural disasters, the pond banks break, reducing the depth and water holding capacity. Owners may struggle to afford re-dredging, so we provide financial and technical assistance. Water from these ponds not only sustains humans, but also supports various animals like cows, goats and chickens."

He added, "We acknowledge the long-standing practice of using pond water in this region and aim to support its sustainability."

Water scarcity in the area is more prevalent during the dry season, particularly from April to June. From July to September, monsoon water becomes the primary drinking water source for the region's inhabitants.

WaterAid Bangladesh, an NGO operating in Satkhira since 2012, has installed and repaired a total of 74 Pond Sand Filters, benefiting 26,000 people, and implemented 17 Reverse Osmosis plants. 

Through its Water Entrepreneurship for Women's Empowerment (WE-WE) approach, the organisation provided safe drinking water to 34,000 people.

The WE-WE approach focuses on women's empowerment in climate-vulnerable areas, mobilising community ownership of technology for sustainable solutions to water scarcity. This approach serves as a social business model, amplifying both social and business impact.

According to Partha Hefaz Shaikh, director of programs and policy advocacy at WaterAid Bangladesh, "Usually, a plant business is set up with five women. In addition to providing technological support for clean water, we aim to enhance the social and economic development of the local community. Our main goal is to make them climate resilient."

Image by Piyas Biswas.

Article written by:
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Piyas Biswas
Farzana Yasmin Lima, 14, and her friend return from collecting drinking water at a reverse osmosis plant established by a local NGO in the Burigoalini area of Shyamnagar sub-district, Satkhira district, Bangladesh.
© Piyas Biswas
Farzana Yasmin Lima, 14, and her friend return from collecting drinking water at a reverse osmosis plant established by a local NGO in the Burigoalini area of Shyamnagar sub-district, Satkhira district, Bangladesh.
Residents collect drinking water from a water treatment plant in the Burigoalini area of Shyamnagar.
© Piyas Biswas
Residents collect drinking water from a water treatment plant in the Burigoalini area of Shyamnagar.
A scenic view of a pond in the Burigoalini area, Shyamnagar.
© Piyas Biswas
A scenic view of a pond in the Burigoalini area, Shyamnagar.
Women gather drinking water from a pond in Shyamnagar Gabura.
© Piyas Biswas
Women gather drinking water from a pond in Shyamnagar Gabura.