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Solving the water crisis in climate-ravaged Bangladesh

© UNICEF/ 2010/ Kiron
A young girl pumps water from the pond into the pond sand filter as women wait to collect water.

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
UNICEF is using several strategies to help overcome the drinking water crisis. In Nine Sora village, UNICEF supported Oxfam to excavate a freshwater pond and install two pond-sand filters to ensure the water was safe for drinking. A third filter was installed at the pond by the Department of Public Health Engineering with UNICEF support.

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.”

© UNICEF/ 2010/ Kiron
A long pipe snakes from a tubewell in Pakhimara village to this water tank on a small boat. This water will be shipped to villages in Gabura union, providing these people with their only source of drinking water.

Shipping water across rivers
In other parts of Shyamnagar sub-district, the only way to provide safe drinking water is to ship it in by boat. Water is drawn from tubewells in the few areas where they are feasible because the groundwater is not salty.  The water us then piped into a large water tank on a boat and shipped for up to three hours to areas in Gabura union with no other drinking water source.

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.

Harvesting rainwater
In nearby Nilduamur village in the same sub-district, Hafez Rafiqul Islam fills a glass with crystal clear water from a rainwater tank. Tubewells cannot be used in this village because of groundwater salinisation. UNICEF has supported the installation of several rainwater tanks in this sub-district and people can be seen queuing at tanks on the side of the road.

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.

“The tank is a blessing for my family. Since we received the tank nobody in my family has fallen ill with diarrhoea. The tank was previously used mainly by my family, but after Aila, three to four families use it. Since Aila there has been a big crisis for water,” he said.
Refilling aquifers with rainwater
An innovative drinking water solution that UNICEF is currently piloting is to artificially top-up or ‘recharge’ the groundwater during the monsoon season. In Khulna district in southern Bangladesh, UNICEF has started action research of methods to direct fresh rainwater underground into the aquifer, displacing the salty water. The aquifers could be used as free, natural storage spaces from which water could be accessed using hand pump tubewells. This innovation would overcome some of the limitations of rainwater harvesting tanks such as their cost and limited storage capacity.



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