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Access to water: Extreme crisis for the next decades

Published : Tuesday, 30 November, 2021 at 12:00 AM  Count : 886

Access to water: Extreme crisis for the next decades

Access to water: Extreme crisis for the next decades

It has been said on many instances that, the next world war will be for water. With continuous global warming due to climate change, this assumption seems to get more real. During the last two decades, the water level has gone lower significantly. Every year it has gone down by 1 cm on average. In 2018, over 360 crore people all around the world has suffered from water scarcity. According to an assumption of World Meteorological Organization (WMO), more than 500 crore people will not have access to water. Along with different parts of the world, South Asia remains at the greatest risk of this crisis. Our country will also face the menace and capital Dhaka will suffer the most.

Water Resources of Bangladesh is endowed with plenty of surface and groundwater resources. The surface water resources comprise water available from flowing rivers and static water bodies as ponds, canals etc. Usage patterns show that 96% of water in Bangladesh is used for agriculture, 3% for domestic use and 1% for industrial use.

Of the total water consumed for these various purposes, 69% comes from groundwater sources. 82% of the city's water supply is abstracted from groundwater through 577 deep tube wells, while four relatively small surface water treatment plants provide the remaining 18%. Groundwater levels are dropping at 2 to 3 meters every year. If any preventive measures are not taken groundwater levels will fall to 100 to 150 meters by 2050. Moreover, as the groundwater level is being depleted rapidly, it will create vacuum and risk of high intensity earthquake will increase. We are already earthquake-prone and recently we experienced high level earthquake in Dhaka as well as a moderate one in Chittagong. The risk is getting higher everyday.

Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is one of the fastest growing cities of the world. It remains a great challenge to ensure uninterrupted water supply in the city with adequate quantity and quality round the year. Necessary measures were undertaken to meet the growing demand of water supply which is presently dependent on abstraction of groundwater and to reduce that surface water in the surrounding area of the Dhaka city must be utilized.

Cities in both developing and developed countries around the world are gradually moving towards an unavoidable water crisis. Cape Town in South Africa has already experienced 'Day Zero', when most of the city's water taps were switched off and residents stood in line to collect just 25 liters of water per capita a day. 21 cities in India including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad will run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting 100 million people and 40% of India's population will have no access to drinking water by 2030. Other major cities across the world including Michigan province, Los Angeles, Miami and Salt Lake City of the United States, London of UK, Cairo of Egypt, Beijing of China are also seeing their safe water resources shrink at an alarming rate.

According to the Dhaka Structural Plan 2016-2035, its population will reach 22.79 million by 2035. Ensuring equitable and affordable access to safe water to this increasingly large population is going to be a immense challenge. While Dhaka WASA estimates that per capita water demand in Dhaka is 150 liters per day, a study found that, per capita water usage is 310 liters per day among the households in the formal settlements. Meanwhile, per capita usage is just 85 liters per day among the households in informal settlements like numerous slums with metered Dhaka WASA connections. In posh areas, water usage is higher per capita to 509 liters.

A number of factors are responsible for such high level of water usage. One of the most prominent factors is the current holding-based metering and billing system, where water bill of the entire building is equally divided among the households, irrespective of family size and actual usage. It was also found that per capita income and water usage go up concurrently. Given the present economic trend, average income of the citizens of Dhaka is expected to increase unceasingly, further growing their water usage. Additionally, changing weather patterns also affect consumers' water usage.

Though water supplied by WASA is costly as that is extracted from groundwater sources or is from treated surface water, we use the same water for drinking, cooking, cleaning or even washing vehicles or roads. WASA should hence adopt a policy to supply water required for drinking and cooking separately. Water for other usage should be supplied separately.

There are five rivers and 43 canals inside and around Dhaka which can potentially serve the purpose of retaining rainwater. But they are fast disappearing. The DAP 2010 identified 5,523 acres of water retention areas. A RAJUK study in 2017, however, found the existence of only 1,744 acres of water retention areas. Around 43% of Dhaka's floodplain has been filled in between 2003-2017. And existing water retention bodies are being polluted because of unchecked industrial effluents, dumping of solid wast, and low-level of sewerage treatment. All the six rivers around Dhaka - Buriganga, Shitalakkhya, Dhaleshwari, Turag, Bongshi, and Balu - have turned nearly untreatable as DWASA found in 2016.

The main rivers - Brahmaputra, Meghna, and Ganges - all originate in other countries. Only 7% of the total land that creates the watersheds for these rivers is in Bangladesh. Therefore, we have very little control over how much water they receive from these sources. Compounding the problem is the rising salinity of the water. Moreover, a large part of our groundwater is also contaminated with arsenic.

To mitigate the water crisis in Bangladesh, especially in cities like Dhaka, we must reduce our dependency on groundwater. But, we are completely destroying our surface water. Due to unplanned urbanization, especially at rural areas, the water sources are being destroyed. The surface water is being constantly contaminated with industry chemicals, different types of pollutants, pesticides, domestic and industrial wastes etc. There is no safe water source even at villages today. Hence, the natural fish sources have depleted and fishes are now mostly commercially produced, which also pollutes different water sources. Moreover, the contaminated water is being used for agriculture and that creates risks of serious disease for the consumers. Hence, ultimately extreme health hazard is evident among the citizens.

The pressure of disease among the citizens will be on the health sector as we will have a sick future generation. We need to take preventive measures rather than reactive ones. Industrial water pollution has to be eliminated. We must force all industries to use proper waste management plant right now. The upazilas have turned into pourosovas due to urbanization. All pourosovas must have their own water treatment plant. Their wastes must not spread. Though we are going through severe development, it should not be at the cost of an unhealthy nation.

The Bangladesh government has taken several steps to manage this water crisis like; setting up 4 water treatment plants for Dhaka and surrounding areas. We have only one sewage treatment plant under Dhaka WASA. Bangladesh has adopted 'Delta Plan 2100' under the farsighted leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has been leading in different global climate related forums for over a decade. This 'Delta Plan 2100' includes several approaches to reduce the water crisis. But creating new water and sewage treatment plants for higher usage of the surface water, establishing water reservoirs for containing water during monsoon, emphasizing rainwater harvesting, water conservation campaigns etc. will remain vital to fight this upcoming menace.

To move towards these directions, we need a partnership that brings together the public and the private sectors with community and people. The government should come up with policies incentivizing conservation, the private sector should bring in necessary technologies and the citizens must actively conserve water, so that we may never have to observe a 'Day Zero' like South Africa. We are still very much careless about the water crisis as many of us are not facing it right now while we consider Bangladesh as a riverine country. But we may have to pay heavy price if we remain careless anymore. Hence, we must act now to conserve and value water.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at
Kishore Bangla and Chief Patron,
Bangabandhu Shishu Kishore Mela

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