Shahenoor Akther Urmi
“This locally-led adaptation could be a solution for more communities but lacks support from governments “.
“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 freshwater crisis makes our life horrible. Sometimes I drink less to save (water) for the coming days,” Rani said as she sliced vegetables for lunch in her same-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 BDT (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 the 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 has prompted local communities to come up with their adaptation to the impacts of climate change.
The rising salinity of Bangladesh’s freshwater supply poses a major water security threat for millions of people living along the coast, experts say. What has long been a problem in the southwest districts of Bangladesh is now gradually impacting the 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 10 years (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 7-8mm per year; in the Meghna estuarine floodplain 6-9mm per year; and along the Chittagong coastal plan 11-20mm 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 phenomena work synergistically,” Dr. Reaz Akter Mullick, a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering 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/liter during the dry months and 34 to 11,366 milligrams/liter in the rainy season. In both cases, the extremes are far above the prescribed 300 milligrams/liter for freshwater and the drinkable range of 300-600 milligrams/liter.
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 100 BDT a month.
Rani’s experience is shared by many women and men living in 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 on 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 wells have 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 rainwater,” said Nazer Uddin, 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 rainwater 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.Nazer, 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 BDT 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 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 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 Makshud Alam. “On request, we supply water to some localities in the Patenga areas, but the 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 the water demand in the commercial city 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 of the Karnaphuli Water Supply Project (which is also called SHWTP Phase 2) and adjoins SHWTP-1 is under construction. Presently Chattogram WASA is producing 360 MLD, including 140 million liters of water from the Sheikh Hasina Water Treatment Plant Phase-1, 90 million liters from the Mohra Water Treatment Plant, 90 million liters from the Sheikh Rasel Water Treatment Plant, and 40 million liters 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 fresh water to coastal areas.
ECNEC, the national government’s cabinet committee that approves major projects, signed off on the first revised Bhandal Juri 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 liters 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 including a 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 the Bhandal Juri Water Supply project located at Karnaphuli upazila,” said M. Khairul Islam, Additional Secretary of Water Supply Wing under the 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 the pipeline.”At present they are focused on the Bhandal Juri 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.
This story was written and produced as part of a media skills development program delivered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.