“When it rains, it’s thrilling to us like a festival,” Adori Rani Das, a widow with three children, said as she described the lack of fresh water in her community on the coast of Bangladesh.
“The fresh water crisis makes our life horrible. Sometimes I drink less to save (water) for the coming days,” Rani said while she sliced vegetables for lunch in her sami-pucca house in Jelepara, a fishing community in the northern Katghar area of Chittagong District.
“We have to buy water for cooking and drinking,” she said, adding that a gallon of drinkable water costs 60 taka (US0.60).
“We wash the rice and vegetables primarily with saline water and then wash with fresh water before cooking,” Rani said, adding the process is common among most families in area to save purchased water for cooking and drinking.
Global warming and rising sea levels are having severe impacts on the coast of Bangladesh, leading to more intense storms during the monsoon season and increasing levels of water salinity which puts pressure on freshwater resources in coastal communities like Jelepara.
Better watershed management is needed to protect and improve the quality and storage of water and strengthen the resilience of communities. However, the lack of action by national authorities have prompted local communities to come up with their own adaptation to the impacts of climate change.
The rising salinity of Bangladesh’s freshwater supply poses a major water security threat for millions on people living along the coast, experts say. What has long been a problem in the southwest districts in Bangladesh is now gradually impacting northern parts of the country.
A 2017 study by the Soil Resources Development Institute found that salinity levels in rivers near the Bay of Bengal have increased significantly, and linger for longer.
Soil salinity increased over a 10-year period (2005-2015) from 7.6 to 15.9 parts per thousand (ppt), compared to an acceptable level of 0.4 to 1.8 ppt, according to the study by the SRDI, which is part of the Ministry of Agriculture.
Another study by the Centre for Environmental and Geographical Information Service (CEGIS), a subsidiary of Bangladesh’s water resources ministry, measured the average extent of seawater intrusion in coastal areas and classified it into three sections.
The Assessment of Sea Level Rise and Vulnerability in the Coastal Zone of Bangladesh through Trend Analysis — is based on 30 years of data. It found that, on average, seawater intrusion in the Ganges tidal floodplain is 7-8 mm per year; in the Meghna basin flood plain 6-9 mm per year; and along the Chittagong coastal plan 11-20 mm per year.
Experts say saltwater intrusion can be linked to a combination of the impacts of climate change and a lowering of the groundwater table.
“Both phenomenon of work synergistic,” said Dr. Reaz Akter Mullick, a professor in the Department of Civil Engineer at Chittagong University of Engineering and Technology (CUET).
PUBLIC HEALTH AT RISK
The salinity of groundwater in most coastal districts is several levels above the acceptable level for safe drinkable water recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), according to a study by Bangladesh’s Department of Public Health and Engineering (DPHE).
The study found that in most coastal areas, the level of salinity (chloride count) in the main or secondary aquifer ranged from 103 to 12,433 milligrams/litre during the dry months and 34 to 11,366 milligrams/litre in the rainy season.
In both cases, the extremes are far above the prescribed 300 milligrams/litre for freshwater and the drinkable range of 300-600 milligrams/litre.
The most serious health impacts in coastal areas affected by high salinity are felt by teenage girls and women.
For example, the lack of fresh water can lead to menstrual hygiene problems. Rani had experienced infections and itching during her monthly period and her physician prescribed the use of fresh water. But Rani said that was difficult to secure.
“I have to suffer from pain every month,” Rani said, adding that her gynecologist prescribed a medicine to help relieve her pain that cost about TK 100 a month.
Rani’s experience is shared by many women and men living coastal areas with high salinity levels who suffer from skin diseases, high blood pressure and insomnia.
Hygiene is a key factor in women’s health, particularly for those from poor families who rely on reusing old rags during menstruation, said Shahana Akther, Head of the Gynecologist Department at Chattogram Medical College Hospital (CMCH).
Akther blamed the lack of fresh water for women failing to maintain their menstrual hygiene. “The women have to bear the pain in the long run,” she said.
WATER TANKS EMERGE AS LOCAL ADAPTATION
Deep tube well shave long been the only source of fresh water in Patenga, a coastal community nestled on the Bay of Bengal in Chittagong District. The problem has been how to store scarce sources of fresh water for long-term use.
About 15 years ago, a few families in Patenga came up with a solution. They built reserve tanks near their homes to collect rainwater for the remainder of the year. Soon other families began to incorporate the tanks into the design of their homes.
This locally-led adaptation has spread to other communities where families are embracing the idea to preserve water for the dry season, which can last for up to three months.
“When a week passed after the first rains of the monsoon, we prepare the reserve tank to fill up with fresh rain water,” said Nazir Ahmed, whose late father first introduced the tank idea which has been gradually adopted by the community to extend their supply of freshwater.
The underground reserve tank uses a pipe that allows rain water to enter from the rooftop. A cloth strainer covers the mouth of the tank and prevents any leaves or dirt from contaminating the water. The water is then sent by another pipe into the house for domestic use.
Nazir, citing the benefits of this local solution, said the water saved in a reserve tank can meet the needs of a family of 5-6 members for nine months.
A typical water tank is 10 ft by 10 ft and made from cement. It can cost 50,000 taka to build, although some families build larger tanks.
Experts say digging deeper wells is unsustainable from a water management point of view and can have multiple long-lasting negative impacts, particularly in poor coastal communities.
Local adaptations like the reserve tanks can show the way, but experts note it’s not a perfect solution.
“This is obviously a nice solution, but reservoir capacity and water quality are a big concern,” said CUET’s Dr Mullick.
Governments need to play a bigger role in providing resources and promoting national and local initiatives for freshwater storage, Mullick said. This includes assisting in the development of community-based organizations that support local adaptations.
GAPS IN PLANNING AND EXECUTION
Patenga residents said academics and government officials have visited the area several times and conducted research on the freshwater crisis. But the visitors have offered few solutions to communities on the front line of the crisis.
The Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (WASA), the government agency responsible for the country’s water supply, drainage and sanitation systems, has not done enough to serve coastal communities like Patenga, residents say.
According to WASA, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and WASA launched a project in 2009 to map the supply of the fresh water to the city of Chattogram, but coastal areas were not included in the exercise.
A new project — financed by the World Bank and aiming to provide fresh water to northern coastal areas – will begin a feasibility study next year, said WASA’s Chief Engineer MakshudAlam.
“On request we supply water to some localities in the Patenga areas, but installation of water pipes to supply water continually is not in our plan,”Alam said.
Meanwhile, WASA in Chattogram is working hard to meet a 2030 deadline to meet 100%of water demand in the commercial city of more than 60 lakh people.
The Sheikh Hasina Water Treatment Plant (SHWTP Phase 1) has begun operating with a production capacity of 140 million liters per day (MLD).
The second phase — Karnaphuli Water Supply Project (which also called SHWTP Phase 2) and adjoins SHWTP-1 — is under construction.
Presently Chattogram WASA is producing 360 MLD, including 140 million litres of water from Sheikh Hasina Water Treatment Plant Phase-1, 90 million litres from the Mohara Water Treatment Plant, 90 million litres from the Sheikh Rasel Water Treatment Plant and 40 million litres from deep tube-wells.
LOCAL ADAPTATION NEEDS SUPPORT
The local government in the Patenga area is not providing any financial or logistical support for locally-led adaptation plans, residents say. Instead, authorities are focused on large infrastructure and water treatment plants to supply freshwater to coastal areas.
ECNEC, the national government’s cabinet committee that approves major projects, signed off on the first revised BhandalJuri Water Supply project with an additional cost of Tk 958.85 crore. The upshot is that the total cost of the project increased to Tk 1,995 crore, with September 2020 as the schedule for completion.
The Bhandal Jhuri Water Treatment Plant includes 60 km of transmission pipelines, distribution pipelines, the Patiya Water Pumping Station with an elevated reservoir, and the Karnaphuli Export Processing Zone Pumping Station with a reservoir.
On completion the project is expected to generate some 60 million litres of water daily, 75 percent of which will be supplied to Chattogram South District, including Patiya, Anwara, Karnaphuli and Boalkhali upazilas.
ECNEC approved the Bhandal Jhuri Water Supply Project in January 2016.
Korean Exim Bank is providing a soft loan from Korean Economic Development Cooperation Fund (KEDCF) at 0.01 percent interest, 40 years maturity period includes grace period of 15 years.
The project’s main objectives include supplying water for domestic and non-domestic uses.It envisages developing a sustainable water supply system on the left bank of the Karnaphuli River to improve livelihoods and foster economic development in the area.
“We are planning to provide fresh water to the Patenga coastal area from Bhandal Juri Water Supply project located at Karnaphuli upazila,” said M. Khairul Islam, Additional Secretary of Water Supply Wing under Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Co-operatives.
“From the underwater pipeline of Kharnaphuli River we are planning to supply the water to the locality,” he said, adding that “the project is in pipeline.”
At present they are focused on the BhandalJuri projects and have no separate plans or financial support for locally led adaptation efforts, he said.
However, supporters of local adaptation say it can play a key role in providing better watershed management to protect and improve the quality and storage of water, as well as strengthen the resilience of communities.
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