Coastal people's endless struggle for safe drinking water
Water is a vital element for human development and one of the basic needs for daily necessities. According to a report published by the United Nations (UN), one-third of the world's population is going through water crisis, of which 1.1 billion have no access to safe drinking water which is very alarming.
Although our country is one of the most irrigated countries in South Asia followed by Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan, we face an extreme water crisis due to the effects of climate change. Its geographical position is the main reason behind this since it comprises the biggest part of the delta of Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM).
The agriculture, biodiversity, livelihood, and culture of Bangladesh largely rely on water, and the supply of water depends on the multiple river system. However, the flow of these rivers is monitored and controlled by various diversion projects in the upstream country (India)which affects the socio-economic development of Bangladesh.
The consequences of climate change such as drought, erratic rainfall, salinity intrusion, higher temperature, cyclone, and storms, have both direct and indirect effects on water resources and people are struggling to access freshwater supplies, especially people living in the coastal areas of Bangladesh and this crisis produces many socio-economic problems as well in people's life.
People living in coastal Bangladesh use rainwater for both drinking and preserving purpose to fulfill their daily demand and this is the only way to survive there since excessive salinity in ground water. Due to changing climate, the salinity level has increased significantly which exceeds the standard level. This is to be noted that the tolerant level adopted by Bangladesh is 150-600mg/l; however considering the practical scenarios and for not having alternative sources left, this standard is set to 1000 mg chloride/liter for coastal areas. If we look at the south-western part of Bangladesh such as Shyamnagar, Gabura upazila of Satkhira district, Mongla, Shoronkhola and others, we can picturize the scenario since salinity level is high in coastal areas.
In Shyamnagar upazila, local government has installed 3,000liter tank for rainwater harvesting on the rooftop in the household level, which can meet water requirements for about ten months however they have to find alternate sources for other two months during the dry season and even saline in natural pond and river is also identified. Frequent cyclones and changing weather have taken the salinity to such a level that local people cannot use nearby water from natural sources. Salinity in water has impacted on agriculture production as well.
It is reported by Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) and mentioned in National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) that there is increasing evidence of salinity increase in soil and water however the appropriate magnitude of the problem is yet to be explored. In 2009, Soil Resource Development Institute (SRDE) of the Ministry of Agriculture found that the total saline area has increased from 0.833 hectares to 1.05 million hectares in only forty years timeframe.
Most importantly, the coastal area covers 20% of our country.It is a matter of great concern that, of which around 53% are affected by different degrees of salinity. Though having thousands of struggles regarding safe drinking water, research and study by the government and different non-government organizations have always been given emphasis.
A few studies on this alarming issue are the BWDB-UNDP study, DPHE-DANIDA study, IBRD study, Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC) study. In 2013 BADC established an annual monitoring system to assess the ground water salinity by installing 130 boreholes of 200 feet in different coastal districts (e.g., Dhaka, Khulna) with a view to monitoring the irrigation water salinity status which preliminary extract water from shallow aquifer layer. BRAC Climate Change Programme is also working to ensure safe drinking water security in six unions (e.g. Chandpai, Mithakhali, Chila, Sundarban, Sunitala and Buriranga) in Mongla through rainwater harvesting system (RWHS).
Since increase of salinity is predicted in coastal Bangladesh, it is obligatory to promote alternative drinking water sources with awareness raising and community involvement. The coastal people of Bangladesh are the frontline soldiers of climate change and they are incomparable with others considering their fight against water insecurity.
Though both government and non-government organizations are trying to keep their footprint in combating water insecurity, still taking the future scenarios into account, both adaptation and mitigation projects should be implemented for ensuring a better life of the coastal people of Bangladesh.
The writer is Deputy Manager, Environment & Social Safeguard, Climate Change Programme at BRAC