Boropukut, a small village in Atulia union under Shyamnagar upazila of Satkhira district, suffers from an acute crisis of drinking water and poor yields of crops due to extremely high salinity in water – a common feature of the coastal region.
Like other households in the village, Archana Rani Mandal's family was finding it difficult to produce any vegetables in their homestead until Oxfam in partnership with local NGO Shushilon introduced an initiative called Protik under its "Recall" programme in 2018.
To help produce vegetables without using the salt-affected soil, Protik came up with a technology – place a polythene sheet on the ground and build a tower of 4 feet height and 62 inches diameter by placing brick rubble, sand, soil, coconut shells, chicken manure and cow dung on top of each other in a specific order and then wrap it in polythene to sustain the structure in place, keeping the top open.
Archana built a water tower in front their house and it quickly became an essential component in her household. The tower helped to double their crop yield.
Archana's family uses this exemplary model to grow crops like chili and red spinach that have become a part of their diet.
Such water towers were built in three households in Archana's village under the Protik initiative before it stopped operations in 2019.
Nonetheless, Archana has continued to reap the benefit of setting up the water tower.
CBOs are helping others through the technology
Like Archana, 50 households are currently using water towers.
Many people from nearby villages have shown interest in building the tower, on Facebook groups created by the Community Based Organisation (CBO). Archana is a member of the CBO.
"We teach them the process. Now some people from other villages are producing vegetables by building the tower," Archana said.
The struggle to access drinking water
There are an abundance of water bodies: canals, ponds and rivers in Shyamnagar upazila. However, the irony lies in the highly saline water. Water salinity in the upazila is so high that even tubewell water (which is difficult to install due to the soil structure anyway) is not drinkable.
There are 12 unions in this upazila and tubewells cannot be installed in five of them, which include Atulia and Burigoalini.
People have to find unique ways to access drinking water. The Reverse Osmosis plant (RO plant), the Pond Sand Filter (PSF) and rainwater harvest are a few examples.
Fifty-year-old Chapala Rani Mandal lives in West Durgabati village in Burigoalini union. There are around 400 households in the village.
At around 10 am every day, Chapala gathers with her female neighbours to travel several kilometres to fetch drinking water.
She walks about 2.5km from her home and reaches a canal, by crossing it she reaches a pond of Ishar Mondal's homestead in Archana's Boropukut village of Atulia union. There she finds a Pond Sand Filter (PSF), a concrete structure which works as a water filter. The structure is on raised land, with taps attached to it and a pump that is connected to the pond water. There is a handle like that of a tube well pump that the women use to pump out water through the taps.
After filling her pitcher – a traditional aluminium water container amounting to 20-25 litre of water with water, Chalpala takes the same route back to her home. Although the journey requires a lot of energy, it does not cost any money to collect the water. PSFs are free to use.
"There are several ponds nearby. However, the one in Ishar Mandal's homestead is the closest and has a functional PSF," said Chalpala.
This was set up by Shushilon in partnership with Oxfam. Under Oxfam's's Recall project, 13 PSFs and one RO plant had been installed across the two unions (Atulia and Burigoalini).
"NGOs, private organisations and entrepreneurs as part of their business have set up 64 such salt filter plants in the upazila. Besides, there are around 1,000 PSF plants to filter pond water," said Mostafizur Rahman, deputy assistant director of the Department of Public Health and Engineering (DPHE) in Shyamnagar.
"Around 1,500-2,000 tanks have been provided from the DPHE to retain rainwater," he added.
However, he failed to confirm whether any other safe water facilities were installed by his department or not.
According to the upazila fisheries office, there are 5,990 ponds in Shyamnagar but water in those ponds is saline and unclean. So, saline-free, safe drinking water is a valuable good in the region.
"When I fall ill and become incapable of making the journey, I have to buy drinking water," Chapala said.
"A large number of PSFs installed from the beginning of the PSF installation history in coastal saline-affected areas of Bangladesh have become ineffective and abandoned those. Repairing and restoration of these PSFs can play a significant role in mitigating the drinking water crisis in the coastal region.
"This would be less expensive but cover huge numbers of people of south-eastern coastal districts of Khulna and Barishal divisions," said Sanjan Kumar Barua, senior programme officer, Oxfam.
Environment-friendly RO plants provide safe water, create employment
According to the Department of Public Health and Engineering office, there are 56 Reverse Osmosis (RO) plants in Shyamnagar upazila.
RO plant is a mechanism which can filter, remove bacteria and desalinate water. Each plant costs nearly Tk20 lakh to be installed.
Even though the use of PSFs is free, that of RO plants is not.
It is operated and managed by the CBO formed under Shushilon's Recall project. Anyone can collect water from a RO plant paying Tk0.5 per litre.
Additionally, the operation of RO plants is quite environment-friendly as they are run by solar power.
Across the region, there are water "hawkers" who collect water from RO plants, carry it by van and then sell it for Tk1 per litre to those who cannot make the journey.
Dulal Kumer Mandal, a water hawker, said, "I know at least 150 people who sell water going from door to door. I earn at least Tk300 per day. Many people earn their livelihood by selling water."
Mostafa Nuruzzaman, chief executive of Shushilon, said, "Even today, scores of people do not have access to safe drinking water. People have to make a long journey to reach safe water sources by spending time and compromising their health. Additionally, many people are suffering from many water-borne diseases."
Collective effort needed to achieve SDGs
The Arpangashia village in Burigoalini union is home to 5,000 people. According to the villagers, four people died due to strokes in the village in February and March this year.
"The number of deaths from strokes in the village over the last one year would be around 40," said Swapan Gatidar, a member of the local union parishad.
"We need to have saline-free safe water at everyone's doorstep. It is a collective responsibility of the government, NGOs and community leaders and also an obligation in order to achieve Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. But it is a huge task. This is just the beginning," Nuruzzaman further added.
M Zakir Hossain Khan, a climate expert and also the honorary executive director at Change Initiatives, said, "Currently, less than 50% of people have access to safe drinking water. To meet SDGs, we need to make safe drinking water available for the remaining 50% people by 2030."
"Water should be safe and affordable. To achieve this, community-based management is imperative along with the support from local administration and government service providers."
"We need to make a shift from profit-oriented business models to social enterprise, where Community Based Organisations (CBOs) will maintain the facilities and charge a minimal amount for water only for its own maintenance cost."
"The DPHE will provide free technical support and train some people so that CBOs themselves can maintain technical issues of plants. Meanwhile, water has to be made free of by subsidies or by social safety net programme," M Zakir Hossain Khan further added.
What community wants
Indigenous knowledge demands a number of lakes with a considerable depth along with a high embankment. While on a visit to the upazila recently, The Business Standard, however, saw canal digging activities.
"If the government digs a number of lakes with high embankments around the villages, then tidal water will not enter the locality. This could be a permanentsolution to salinity in the drinking water," said Bijoy Baiddo, an inhabitant of Arpangashya village of Burigualini union.
"Canal digging by the government will not work, as hatchery owners will bring saline water through the canals and vested groups will take lease of those canals," he added.
Echoing Bijoy Baiddo, Suranjan Mandal from the same village, said, "Collapse of embankments is a regular incident during cyclones in coastal areas. We need safe drinking water round the year at our doorsteps at free of cost, as most of us do not have the capacity to buy water."
"We only can tell our local public representatives, but they need to do the task as they are the authorities," he said, adding that it is urgent to dig the lakes and construct a pipeline after distribution of water tanks.
SM Ataul Haque, chairman of Shyamnagar upazila, said, "At the meetings of different upazila committees, people urge us to dig lakes and renovate the existing ponds. But, ownership of ponds is a problem, as pond owners do not want to register their land in the favour of the local union parishads.
"From the upazila parishad, we have sent many proposals on this issue. It seems Covid-19 is hampering the process."