Access to safe drinking water

Lack of access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation facilities are a significant barrier to improving the health and wellbeing and reducing poverty in the southwest coastal regions of Bangladesh. Salinity in ground and surface water, arsenic contamination of shallow aquifer, lack of aquifer and difficulties in extracting saline free water are some of the causes. The effects are negative health, social and economic outcomes for the local population.

The southwest coastal region of Bangladesh is the home of large numbers of poor, small and marginal farm families and shrimp workers. A large part of Bangladesh is formed by the siltation process of three rivers: the Ganges (Padma), Brahmaputra (Jam una) and Meghna. In the monsoon the river basins flood resulting in a disruption of human habitation, agricultural land and pollution of drinking water sources. The period between November and May is considered as dry season. During this season only 22% of the total annual rainfall takes place in the country and the evaporation rate is four times higher than the amount of rainfall. This result is a scarcity of water because of the decline of water flow in the rivers and the drying up of large numbers of water bodies.

Prior to the 1950’s communities in the rural areas of Bangladesh followed a practice known as ‘the ethics of commons’ that governed the uses of ponds and dug wells designated for drinking water. Poverty and rapid population growth, combined with the tradition of drinking water from open ponds and poor sanitary habits, contributed in the 1960s and 1970s to a high level of water-related morbidity and mortality. The Government of Bangladesh (GoB) has since installed more than 1.2 million hand pump tubewells in rural areas and six times as many tubewells have been installed by private individuals, NGOs and other agencies. In rural areas tubewells changed peoples practices and most of the traditional dug wells and ponds have been neglected. That degraded the condition of these sources of drinking water and eroded the practice of the ethics of commons.

The introduction of drinking water through tubewells, some higher sanitation coverage and improved primary health has contributed to a significant drop in mortality from diarrhoeal diseases from 300,000 deaths per year in the 1980s to 150,000 in 1997. However, the overall situation is far from satisfactory. Mortality rates of infants and children under five years are 56 and 88 deaths per live births respectively. Water related diseases still continue to account for a majority of these deaths. Since 1995 the country has been facing a new public health challenge related to water supply with the detection of arsenic in large number of tubewells. A nationwide arsenic testing programme supported by the Government of Bangladesh and UNICEF found in 2006 that 20% of the shallow (dug) wells in Bangladesh were contaminated with Arsenic above the national norm.

Poor sanitation facilities are another cause for the lack of safe drinking water. As of 2008, 40% of the population does not have access to sanitary latrines and the rest practice open defecation or use unhygienic hanging latrines. Although nearly 75% of urban population uses some kind of on-site sanitation, mostly pit latrines, the sludge from these latrines are generally discharged through open drains and into the rivers, ground water and nearby ponds creating a highly contaminated environment. Only the capital city Dhaka has a sewer system. Although groundwater is considered safe in terms of bacteriological contamination, studies show that about half the deep tubewells are contaminated with bacteria. The situation is believed to be similar for shallow tubewells. The level of contamination increases drastically in monsoon season. This contamination is mainly because of poor maintenance and sanitary protection of tubewell surroundings.

Water management in southwest Bangladesh
Coastal embankment project of 1960s: River and tidal borne sediment concentration has formed the land mass of the coastal region. This process of land formation was disrupted by the implementation of coastal embankment project in the 1960s. Under this project 97 polders were constructed (37 in southwest coastal region) to free the wetland from saline water and to enable higher levels of agricultural production. The construction of polders has restricted entrance of river water to the wetland which resulted in elevation of river beds due to the concentration of tidal borne sediments on the river bed instead of the wetlands. The elevation means in some areas river beds are now higher than the adjacent wetlands and as a result excess water on the wetland can not pass into the river which causes water logging. The problem of water logging becomes more acute and prolonged when saline water enters into the wetlands during high tide.

Reduction of the flow of river Ganges in dry season due to over withdrawal of water upstream: Ganges or Padma is the largest river that flow over Bangladesh. In dry season, about 175 hundred thousand cusec water used to flow on the river. In 1930s and 1940s this flow had been about hundred and thirty five thousand cusec. The Ganga water distribution Treaty, commonly known as Farakka Treaty made available of only 27500 thousand cusec water for Bangladesh during the dry period with the remaining amount being diverted by India. India diverts water through a feeder canal from Farakka barrage to the river Hugli to ensure proper navigation at Kolkata port. It is important to note that the feeder canal can divert 40 thousand cusec of water which is needed to maintain the required depth of the river Hugli. The reduction of fresh water flow of Ganges, because of the withdrawal of water by India, has meant an increase in salinity in the Balashsar and other rivers of Bangladesh.

Safe drinking water: practices, quality and implications

Arsenic Contamination
Underground water of this region contains arsenic. A study carried out by Uttaran indicated that 79% of the tested tubewells of the area contain arsenic beyond the acceptable limit.

Lack of aquifer
Ground water occurs in permeable geological formations known as aquifers. For extraction of groundwater medium clean sand is suitable. This sand has considerable porosity and permeability and can store a huge amount of water. Fine sand also can store a considerable amount of water. However, as the position of the area is in the lower part of Ganges delta the sediments of the region have very low permeability and are not able to store water. As a result, the region lacks aquifer that fresh groundwater can be extracted from.

Land Subsidence
Dr. Munirul Haque, Director of the Institute of Delta Research Institute of Dhaka University, has found in a study that most of the area of wetland is subsiding by 1-2cm each year. In the last 3-4 decades this continuous subsidence has meant land within the WAPDA embankment is gradually going down and the levels of saline water have increased.

Cultivation of brackish water shrimp
In the southwest region shrimp cultivation is underway in almost all the wetlands. In most of the cases, salt water from the river is brought into the wetland for shrimp cultivation, which is increasing the salinity of the adjacent fresh water ponds and shallow aquifer through seepage.

Reduction in upstream flow
In the past the southwest coastal region was rich in fresh water as the Ganges had flowed through it. However, the scenario changed following two disastrous events: the change of the course of the river Ganges and the closing of the face of the origin of the river Matha Vanga. This had a serious implication for safe drinking water available from ground water sources. The reduction of upstream flow deteriorated the recharge rate of the ground water table, reduced fresh water bodies and resulted in over extraction of groundwater for irrigation and use of water from fresh water ponds.

Excessive use of underground water in an unplanned way
Since the 1980s vast land in the southwest coastal region, except the slight saline wetland, has been brought under irrigation for cultivation of Borro rice through extraction of underground water in the dry season. The lack of surface water for irrigation during dry season has compelled the farmers to exploit underground water extensively resulting in a lowering of underground water table beyond the suction limits of shallow tubewell, making millions of shallow tubewells dysfunctional. This over-extraction of groundwater is one of the possible reasons for the contamination of shallow aquifer by arsenic.

Contamination of freshwater bodies
Water bodies of this region are being polluted due to disposal of industrial waste, human waste, domestic solid waste and waste of markets and bazaar etc. A study carried out by ICZM in Bagerhat district indicated that each household generated 2 kg of solid waste on a daily basis and a BUET study carried out in Morrelganj Upazila of Bagerhat district found nearly 89% of households do not dispose of their household waste to any fixed place and 61% dispose of it in nearby water bodies. The same study found that nearly 70% of household latrines are either constructed directly on water bodies (as hanging latrines) or are latrine pits connected to nearby water bodies through pipes.

Natural disasters
The region regularly experiences natural disasters (e.g. water logging, cyclones, tidal surges, floods, river erosion, etc) which are responsible for the destruction of drinking water sources and sanitation facilities. During cyclone Sidr in late 2007 the majority of drinking water sources became dysfunctional and sanitation facilities were either damaged or destroyed. Under the Sidr rehabilitation programs water supply and sanitation facilities were restored by various government and non government agencies. However, the majority were again damaged by the recent cyclone Aila.

Future increase in scarcity of saline free drinking water
The present problem of saline free drinking water in the region is expected to increase in the future due to global climate change and the Inter River Linking Project (IRLP) of India. It has been assumed that the effect of climate change on Bangladesh will be worse comparative to other countries. A large part of Bangladesh (14-17% of the total land mass) will go under the water. About 20 million people will not have a place to live. If the sea level increases by only one meter, 22.889sqm of the country will go under the water and 62% of greater Khulna will be submerged. The implication of climate change in Khulna, Satkhira and Bagerhat of southwest coastal region is already tangible. The last 3 decades have seen the sea level in the coastal region rise by 3 to 4 mm per year. The height of the ground level of the southwest coastal region is only slightly higher than the sea level and in the near future all the sources of fresh water may be completely destroyed as a result of the predicted one meter rise in sea level.

The situation is going to be further aggravated by the planned IRLP of the Indian government. IRLP will be the largest infrastructure works ever undertaken in the world. Under the project, 30 links and some 3,000 storages will be built to connect 37 Himalayan and Peninsular rivers to form a gigantic water grid. It will cost $120 billion and handle 178 sq cubic kms of inter-basin water transfer per year. The project has raised concern in Bangladesh as diversion of water from common rivers through construction of barrages, particularly on the tributary and distributaries of river Bramaputra, would have severe implications for the availability of fresh water. Experts estimated that diverting just 10 to 20 percent of water of the Brahmaputra River in India could cause 100 Bangladeshi rivers to dry.

This will further reduce the depth of the rivers in the southwest coastal region. Intrusion of saline water from the sea into the inlands will increase salinity and scarcity of fresh water. At present the Gari and Madhumati rivers are important sources of fresh water in the southwest coastal region. If IRLP is implemented the flow of fresh water from both rivers will be lost and the crisis of access to safe drinking water supply would be worsened.

Health, social and financial implications
People in the region suffer from various diseases caused by drinking an insufficient amount of water and drinking water with high levels of salinity, impurity or arsenic contamination. Various skin diseases, intestinal diseases, dysentery, fever and diarrhoea are part of life. Other health concerns linked to a lack of safe drinking water include malnutrition amongst women and children, reproductive problems for pregnant women, skin turning black, physical weakness and anxiety. Women can be particularly susceptible to diseases (e.g. rickets) as they are expected to take less water than men.

Women and girls face a number of rights abuses as a direct result of the lack of safe drinking water. In rural Bangladesh it is the women’s role to collect drinking water. The drinking water can be many kilometres from the home and there are frequent incidents of violence against women and girls for not fetching drinking water on time or not having meals prepared because of the amount of time it takes to fetch water. Fetching water means women do not have time to tend to their homestead garden, which is often their only source of productivity and income.

There are other social crises associated with poor access to safe drinking water: the education of children is hampered; young children are often left unattended when their mother goes to fetch water; they are frequent incidents of child labour; the household has less time to socialise and develop social networks; women are teased and harassed on their way to fetch water; social stigma prevents girls getting married and leads to an increased rate of divorce; population migration; and local contentions and litigations related to water use have become a regular phenomena.

Gathering drinking water means a significant amount of productive hours is consumed. Household expenditure increases to purchase fresh water to enable cultivation of crops. Cost of buying vegetables increases whilst the durability of houses is reduced and scarcity of food occurs. Maintaining livestock and poultry become difficult. Scarcity of organic fertilizer makes carrying out agricultural activities difficult. All these factors together constitute a major economic problem for the poor.

Current policy and advocacy initiatives
Bangladesh is committed to achieving the targets of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). The government is in the process of preparing a cost sharing strategy for water and sanitation services. The National WSS Policy 1998 is the most significant policy for the sector. The Policy aims to change the traditional service deliver arrangement and to increase the capacity of the sector. It calls for decentralization and emphasizes the participation of communities in planning, development, operation and maintenance of water supply and sanitation facilities through local government and community-based organizations.

The Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE) was created in 1935 as a sector agency to promote public health through ensuring provision of safe drinking water and since 1954 also sanitation. It is the government agency responsible for ensuring access to safe drinking water. The Local Government Division (LGD) of the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives (LGRD&C) has overall responsible for the water and sanitation sector. The DPHE is under the administrative control of LGD. Union Parishads (UPs) are the local government institutions responsible for implementing all government policies and development activities including access to safe drinking water. However, UPs in the southwest coastal region often lack the capacity, appropriate knowledge and technology or the ability to mobilise local resources to effectively deal with the problem of lack of access to safe drinking water.

Uttaran’s work on access to safe drinking water
Uttaran has been working to improve access to safe drinking water and sanitation in the southwest coastal region of Bangladesh since its inception and is at present implementing a number of projects to improve drinking water sources (e.g. pond re-excavation). Uttaran has facilitated the forming and sustaining of local level community groups federated under district level committee – Pani Committee (Pani – Water). These Pani Committees act as advocacy groups demanding community management of the tidal rivers of the Sunderban mangrove forest. They have been able to mobilize communities in region and are actively engaged with the issue of arsenic contamination, increased salinity and the acute crisis of safe drinking water in the region.


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