Solving the water crisis in climate-ravaged Bangladesh
By Sophie McNamara
Satkhira district, Bangladesh, April 2010: For people living in Shyamnagar sub-district in Satkhira, south-west Bangladesh, climate change is not just something they read about in newspapers – it is a reality that affects their everyday lives.
“There used to be many seasons here, but now there are only two – the summer is very hot, and the winter is extremely cold. There isn’t enough rain so it creates a big problem to get safe water,” says Shahar Banu Khatoum, 33, a resident of Nine Sora village in Gabura union.
Experts predict that climate change will increase the frequency and severity of natural disasters. Sora residents have been affected by two major cyclones recently - Cyclone Sidr in November 2007 and Cyclone Aila in May 2009. When Aila hit, locals say the embankments were breached within about 10 minutes, causing widespread flooding that has still not receded. Most of the ponds they used for drinking water became inundated with saltwater. Almost a year after the cyclone, embankments have not been repaired and new breaches have formed. Many people continue to live in makeshift huts of bamboo thatch and plastic sheeting, on the thin stretch of land that is above the high-tide line.
Aside from the problems caused by Aila, most of the groundwater in the area is salty, so tubewells can not be used. This salinisation is expected to affect more areas as sea levels rise due to climate change.
“People face a huge water crisis in this area. The lack of drinking water is without a doubt the worst climate effect. There are only four functional tubewells in Gabura union – the rest are salty,” says Syed Rahman, from UNICEF’s local partner NGO, Progotir.
Filtering pond water
The filters work by passing pond water through four chambers: two filled with brick chips and two filled with sand. Each chamber removes progressively smaller particles until safe drinking water comes out of a tap attached to the filter.
“The brick chips reduce the turbidity [muddiness] of the water, while the sand removes bacteria and coliform. Every 2-3 months we test the water quality to make sure it is safe,” says Sujon Mondol, public health engineer from Progotir.
Each filter costs about 610 USD to install and is a simple and cost-effective way to provide thousands of people with drinking water. On this humid spring afternoon, a crowd is waiting to fill metal water pots with the filtered pond water. About 2000 households rely on this pond for drinking water, with many people returning 4-5 times a day for water. People walk up to 1.5 kilometres to reach the pond while others arrive in boats to transport the water to neighbouring villages.
“Some people still take water directly from the ponds, because there’s always a long queue for the filter. They then become sick with diarrhoea. So we need more filters,” says Abdul Rashid, chairperson of the village’s water management committee.
Selina Akter, 30, has lived in Nine Sora village her whole life and is caretaker of the filter. “Every 10-15 days I open the bottom pipe and my husband goes in and cleans the filter. When there’s a mechanical problem I use the tools I’ve been given and the training I received on maintaining the filter.”
Shipping water across rivers
Cyclone Aila damaged many of the tubewells in the sub-district, but many have now been repaired or rebuilt with the support of UNICEF and other organisations. The new tubewells are elevated to prevent contamination by future floodwater.
Hafez has a 3200 litre tank in his own backyard, installed by the NGO Forum for Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation in 2002, and repaired after Aila with UNICEF support. It’s the end of the dry season and the soil is cracked, but Hafez has carefully rationed the water supply so it lasts the entire dry season. “We only use the rainwater for drinking purposes, not cooking or cleaning,” said Hafez, the father of five daughters.