Groundwater level in Chattogram city has declined by 20 metres over the past 40 years, mainly due to excessive withdrawal, leaving hundreds of tube wells useless.
Heavy industries have often used the shortcut of extracting groundwater instead of carrying water from far away rivers.
Now, they are also suffering as their water abstracting mechanism is failing to provide enough water needed for operation.
Experts have linked an ongoing severe water crisis to excessive extraction of groundwater. In reality, the industries themselves are somewhat responsible for their own miseries.
Take the instance of the PHP Float Glass Factory in Sitakunda, which is now meeting its demand for around one million litres of water per day by conserving rainwater, diverting water from hill fountains and piping in water from the Feni river. Meeting their daily water requirement has pushed the company's production cost up.
Mohammad Mohsin, vice-chairman of the PHP Family, said, "There is an acute water crisis. We ourselves are harvesting rainwater. We collect water from three fountains next to our factory. We have no access to groundwater."
Md Zaheer Uddin Dewan, supervising engineer of the Department of Public Health Engineering (Chattogram Circle), said, "The industries extract water by installing deep tubewells without taking any permission from the authorities."
He blamed climate change, presence of arsenic and salinity in groundwater, and increased salinity in river water for the water crisis.
Chattogram's domestic consumers are also suffering from the severe drinking water crisis.
Recently, lawmaker Engineer Mosharraf Hossain along with residents in Mirsarai demanded a ban on industrial use of groundwater to keep water available for people of the area. Some 3.5 lakh people of Mirsarai upazila now face a dwindling drinking water supply. Farmers are also finding it hard to get enough water for their crops.
According to the Department of Public Health Engineering, 12,785 tube wells installed by the government in the last 10 years and 30,000 privately installed tube wells in 16 upazilas of Chattogram have become unproductive.
About 50 lakh people out of 76 lakh in the district are suffering as the groundwater level has declined by 20 metres in the last 40 years in Chattogram, according to the Groundwater Resources Department of the Water Development Board.
Since cyclone Sidr in 2007, salinity in rivers had begun to increase exponentially, while industrial groundwater extraction had been going up significantly, said Dr Anwar Zahid, director of the Groundwater Resources Department.
With the growing number of industries, demand for water has also gone up manifold. On the other hand, tube wells and submersible pumps were installed in every village house. Earlier, groundwater was used only for drinking, now it is used for all kinds of daily activities as well, he added.
There are 1,250 small and medium factories in 17 industrial zones in Chattogram region. Many large industrial groups, including BSRM, Abul Khair Group, GPH Ispat, PHP Family, KSRM, T.K. Group, Sunman Group, SA Group, KDS Group, Confidence Group, and Mostafa Hakim Group have set up factories in Sitakunda and Mirsarai.
There are also significant investments by various multinational companies in the area. However, about 500 industries in the region are feeling the severe crunch.
The water crisis in different industrial zones in Chattogram has intensified in the last five years. In particular, the water crisis in steel and glass factories has put investments amounting to crores of takas at risk.
The BSRM factory in Mirsarai requires around one million litres of water per day.
Tapan Sengupta, deputy managing director of BSRM, told The Business Standard, "We are managing production by harvesting rainwater and collecting water from the Feni river. We have an agreement with the Water Development Board to bring water from the Feni river through a pipeline."
At present, the largest economic zone of Bangladesh, the Bangabandhu Industrial City is being developed on about 30,000 acres of land in Mirsarai. The industrial city, which is expected to employ at least 1.5 million people, will have a daily demand of about 500 million litres of water by 2031. The initial plan was to take water from the river Halda through Chattogram Wasa, but the river itself is in crisis because of the growing salinity.
Although the Chattogram Wasa gets 20% of their water from Halda, it often has to stop its pumps because of increased salinity in the river. In this situation, Chattogram Wasa is looking for an alternative source of water.
Chattogram Wasa Chief Engineer Maqsood Alam told TBS, "We are looking for alternative sources to supply water to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Industrial City because of rising salinity in the Halda river. We are planning to bring water from the Meghna, which is 132km off the economic zone. The salinity of the water there is 12ppm."
When contacted, Paban Chowdhury, executive chairman of Bangladesh Economic Zone Authority (Beza), said, "We are optimistic that the project to supply water to the Bangabandhu industrial city from Meghna will be a successful one. We also have other sources to collect water."
"We have plans to take up a desalination project for the economic zone. So, there will be no water crisis," Paban added.
On the other hand, people and industrial establishments dependent on Karnaphuli and Halda rivers are suffering.
Karnaphuli Fertiliser Company Limited (Kafco) in Chattogram needs 800 tonnes of freshwater per hour to continue production. The company was supposed to collect the water from the nearby Karnaphuli.
But Kafko is not getting enough water as salinity in the river has also increased. As a result, the company is pumping underground water by seven deep tube wells.
Locals complain that the groundwater level has declined because of the excessive extraction by Kafco. Water is beyond the reach of shallow tube wells in the area. Even the ponds have dried up.
The Chattogram Urea Fertiliser Limited is dependent on a huge amount of water for its daily production. The company had to halt production for at least 72 days in 2020 due to the rise in salinity in the Karnaphuli.
Priyanka Chakma, deputy assistant engineer of the Public Health Engineering Department, Anwara upazila, said, "The groundwater level in different areas of Anwara upazila has gone down. Even some 75 metre deep tube wells installed by private enterprises now cannot lift water."
The Chattogram Chamber of Commerce and Industry is worried about the water problem. They have already written to the industries ministry several times and once to the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Co-operatives to resolve the issue.
Mahbubul Alam, president of Chattogram Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said, "Currently, the water crisis is the biggest problem in Chattogram. Therefore, we have appealed to the industries ministry to provide a portion of water to Chattogram from the water that will be collected from the Meghna for the Bangabandhu Industrial City. If the water problem is not solved, there will be a large-scale disaster in Chattogram."
Additional Secretary (Law and Policy) to the industries ministry Mohammad Selim Uddin told TBS, "The National Policy-2021 is emphasising water resources in the industrial zones. Industries must focus on the use of rainwater and surface water. No industrial plant can run on groundwater. If necessary, they can purify river water and use it."
How water crisis is intensifying
In the last 12 years, the groundwater level has declined by 13 meters.
Scientists apprehend impending natural and humanitarian catastrophe in the region owing to a significant fall in groundwater.
They say if the arbitrary use of groundwater is not stopped, it will be difficult to handle the situation in the coming days.
Similarly, the water of the Karnaphuli and the Halda rivers has become unusable because of climate change. In the last 33 years, the salinity of the Karnaphuli has increased almost 3,000 times.
According to Chattogram Wasa, the maximum salinity in Halda was 90ppm in 2004, which increased to 11,000ppm after cyclone Yaas.
The industries along the Karnaphuli are also facing a water crisis.
However, experts say it is still possible to reduce the disaster with proper supervision and planning.
According to the Underground Water Resources Department, in 1968, deep tube wells would hit water level at a maximum depth of 10 to 12 metre. Now, water is hard to find even at a depth of 50 metre.
According to the Bangladesh Agriculture Development Corporation's Groundwater Zoning Map- 2016, groundwater levels in 48 districts including Chattogram have depleted by 1.5 to 3 metres.
Anwar Zahid said, "Water could be found only at a depth of two metres in the Panchlaish area of Chattogram in 1980, but now it is difficult to get water at a depth of 22 metres. The water level in the Agrabad area is about 18 metres below the ground."
"The location of groundwater in Chattogram is not the same as in other parts of the country. Due to the hilly terrain, the water table fluctuates because of sand and rock layers. Besides, the soil of the industrial areas of Sitakunda and Mirsarai is very rocky. As a result, the groundwater does not accumulate here," said Dr Anwar Zahid.
Dr Saleemul Huq, director of International Centre for Climate Change and Development at Independent University Bangladesh, said, "The increasing salinity in Halda and Karnaphuli rivers and in the groundwater is because of climate change impacts. It will deteriorate even more. We have to take steps to mitigate the impacts of climate change."