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Helping communities access drinking water in the face of climate change

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2009/Naser Siddique
A man drinks a glass of water in Kodomtola village, Bagerhat District, in the southern coastal area of Bangladesh, an area affected by an increasing salinization of ground water. UNICEF and its partners are providing rainwater harvesting tanks.
BAGERHAT DISTRICT, Bangladesh, 24 February 2010. Defying stifling heat and humidity, Maya Begum walks more than an hour from her village to fill two large plastic containers with drinking water for her family of four.

Maya is one of many young women who make the arduous trek two or three times a week to Kodomtola village, about 190 km southwest of the capital, Dhaka.

Following the devastating effects of Cyclone Sidr in 2007, large rainwater tanks were installed in Kodomtola with UNICEF support and with additional funding from the UK Department for International Development and the Government of Japan.

“We do not have any drinking water sources in our village,” explained Maya. “The surface water that is available is not safe and the manually filtered water from ponds stinks.”

Safe water is hard to find

Drinking water is hard to find in the region. Salty groundwater – caused by factors including soil desiccation and tidal flooding – is a major problem in coastal areas, which represent more than 30 per cent of the region’s cultivable lands.

In addition, large fresh-water bodies in the area are often used to cultivate shrimp, so much of the fresh water has also become contaminated.

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2009/Naser Siddique
A young woman collects water from the rainwater tank in Kodomtola village, in the southern coastal area of Bangladesh.
Climate change is expected to make drinking water even scarcer. Natural disasters, which are predicted to increase in frequency, will damage water and sanitation infrastructure such as tube wells and latrines. Embankments have already been greatly damaged by recent cyclones, creating large breaches.

The sea-level rise that is predicted to accompany climate change will mean that more communities, and increasingly those in inland areas, will be affected by salinization.

Contaminated wells

In the coastal Bagerhat District, more than half of the 3,941 hand-pumped tube-wells in the Swarankhola area are inoperative because they contain high levels of salt, arsenic and iron.

“Installing a desalinization plant in Swarankhola would be a costly proposition for the government,” said Shamsul Alam, Executive Engineer of the Department of Public Health and Engineering.

Instead, the community has been harvesting rainwater in tanks since October 2008. This technology is far cheaper than filtering bacteria and other contaminants from pond water.

With UNICEF support and CARE Bangladesh supervision, the local non-governmental organization Shushilan has constructed 131 household rainwater tanks in Swarankhola. Twenty-seven of them are in Kodomtola village.

Supplies can run low

According to Kodomtola residents, the rainwater tastes clean and is free of any unpleasant smell. Locals try to ensure that the water from the tank is used only for drinking and cooking, because the tank’s supply can run low in the dry season.

“The tank can hold a limited quantity of water,” said local fisherman Jamaluddin. “On average, it lasts for about three months for a family of four to six. But when neighbours come and keep asking us to share it, we really have no choice but to ration its use.”

“The problem gets worse during the dry season,” added Kodomtola resident Rabeya Akhand. “Most of the water tanks start to go empty. When the tanks empty we are forced to drink from ponds using the traditional technology of filtering the water through at least seven layers of used cotton fabric, usually old sarees, to remove germs.”

Easy-to-use technology

Rainwater harvesting technology is easy to use and maintain. Rainwater runs down the sloping tin roof, into plastic half-pipe gutters fixed to the edge of the roof and down into the tank. Each tank, with a tap near the bottom edge, can hold 3,200 litres of water.

UNICEF is promoting the construction of more harvesting tanks to eliminate shortages and help people access safe water closer to home.




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