Hamida Khatun married Abdul Hannan around the time the catastrophic 1988 flood was wreaking havoc on the country. For Hamida, now 45, and mother of two daughters and one son, it was an ominous sign of things to come. For three decades, she has persistently had to deal with one form of crisis or another that has to do with water.
As a young bride she used to fetch drinking water from the neighbours' hand-pumps. As the number of her family members grew, so did the daily demand for water.
Sometimes she felt ashamed for not having a tube-well in her own courtyard. How long would the family members bathe and wash clothes and utensils in the pond? Her farm labourer husband was unable to buy a hand-pump.
When their first child, Alena Khatun, passed primary school, a hand-pump was installed on their premises with their hard-earned savings. And a tin-shed bathroom was erected centering the pump. The family members thought their plight would, finally, ebb.
They, unfortunately, thought wrong.
Several years later, the hand-pump started to break down, particularly in the dry season. At least once every year, a tube-well mechanic came and added an extra pipe beneath the pump so that it could suck water from underground.
The pump turned totally dysfunctional five years ago as its foot valve (part of the bottom end of a pump) failed to fetch the groundwater. The other neighbouring hand-pumps also became useless one after another.
"Solvent neighbours could install the costly submersible pump. But how could I? I borrowed Tk10,000 and spent the money on stretching a water pipeline from a neighbouring house's submersible pump.
I pay a fraction of the monthly electricity bill [submersible pump runs on electricity]. Still, I feel ashamed," said Hamida, in her kitchen, while she was baking rice flour-made cakes for her family members.
Hamida resides in the Masterbari area of Gazipur district, which is one of many areas that constitute 31-44% land area of Bangladesh that are currently at risk because of depleting groundwater. According to a World Bank-funded study (published in 2019) on multi-hazard groundwater risks in Bangladesh, more than 40 million people, including eight million poor, are facing such risks.
In monsoon, the water table lifts across most of the affected lands, except some areas like Masterbari in Gazipur, where both agricultural and industrial sectors pump excessive groundwater.
From Hamida's courtyard I could see the tops of cement bins of a mortar mixing plant, stretching their necks amid green tree tops - where Hamida's husband, Hannan, works as a security guard.
The cement bins are vertical vessels that are used to mix cement and other materials needed for construction.
Tube-well mechanic Manik, who accompanied me, said he had installed two submersible pumps of four horsepower (HP) at the plant that pumps up thousands of litres of water every day, required for mixing cement and materials.
Dysfunctional pumps, depleting groundwater level and more tales of woes
Manik, who has been a tube-well mechanic for the last 12 years, said that the groundwater level of the area depletes by 85-95 feet deep during the dry season: December-April.
"Even seven years ago, a hand-pump with a 1.5 inch diameter pipe could extract water from 60-feet deep."
The tube-well mechanic, clad in full-sleeve shirt and lungi, seemed in a rush as he was assigned to install a submersible pump at a nearby household on that very day. "Hand-pump is now a defunct idea. If you have money, install a submersible pump," Manik said, adding that he instals 20-25 submersible pumps on average every month.
Chinese submersible pumps worth Tk12,000-15,000 dominate the market. The price of a submersible pump does not actually represent the total installation cost. "Boring the well 350 feet deep costs a lot. It may take Tk70,000-Tk95,000," said Manik, before leaving for his work.
For these pumps to work, a foundational pipe is used, that is placed deeper into the ground. This is called 'boring the well,' and is part of the pump.
Hamida's son Shakil guided me to a nearby irrigation pump that was extracting less water than before for unclear reasons. On our way to the irrigation pump house, we found a retired farmer, Ador Ali, 65, on a wheel-chair. A few years ago, Ador survived a brain stroke that had paralysed his limbs.
Five years earlier, when his domestic hand-pump became dysfunctional, Ador had to sell two cows to arrange the cost of the submersible pump. He had no other option as he feared he could not help his wife Bachhia Khatun fetch water from neighbours' house. Their three children live outside Masterbari.
The defunct hand-pump is still in Ador's bathroom. The pump looks like an antique showpiece that served the family for 30 years.
While we approached the irrigation pump house, I saw another tube-well mechanic Lal Miah and his associates boring a well for a submersible pump on private land. Their outfits were soaked and smeared with reddish clay.
"For most of my 18-year-long career, I considered groundwater depletion a dry-seasonal phenomenon. For the last five-six years, it has become a regular problem.
However, as a submersible pump is set 300-feet deep underground, it extracts litres of water as long as there is an uninterrupted power supply," said Lal Miah, explaining why this particular pump device is popular.
Finally, we reached the irrigation pump house which was built in 1972 by Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC). Initially a Ruston engine pumped so much water that more than 300 bighas of paddy fields were watered in the Boro season.
Later, the engine was replaced by a diesel-run power tiller pump when BADC left the pump house to private management. Currently, the irrigation facility covers around 100 bighas of cropland.
Failures of pump houses
According to Bangladesh Water Development Board, approximately 32 km3 (trillion litre) of groundwater is withdrawn annually in Bangladesh. Of the amount, 90% is used for irrigation and 10% for domestic and industrial purposes, combined.
Currently, the pump house is operated by one certain Abdul Mannan. He was unavailable at the time. But his nephew Abul Hossain was present. Abul, 55, cultivates paddy two times a year, along with some other farmers.
"How can the pump house supply as much water as it did a few years ago? The earlier pumps could extract water through a six-inch diameter pipe.
We replaced the diesel-run pump with a submersible one due to depleting groundwater level. The existing 1.5HP pump extracts water through a four-inch pipe. This is the reason," explained Abul. A six-inch diameter pipe does not suit the available Chinese submersible pumps.
The pump house's irrigation coverage has narrowed now for several reasons: conversion of cropland to human habitat and industrial site, disruptions in irrigation canals and high irrigation costs.
Each of 70 farmers pays Abdul Mannan Tk2,500 per bigha for seasonal irrigation. Mannan has invested around Tk1 lakh in the pump house. And now, he is collecting the returns.
Mannan's pump house facilitates some croplands on the west side of the Dhaka-Mymensingh highway.
How do the farmers, on the eastern side, cope with the depleting groundwater?
I headed to Sreepur to find out. On the way, just before the Sreepur bus stop, I spotted a semi-pucca house in the midst of a small crowd.
Water pump parts, including bore pipes, were scattered on the dusty ground. And a few people were fixing a pump engine inside the house.
The pump house was developed by BADC in 1972. And later, it was handed over to private management. Currently, a group of seven farmers manage the pump house with an electricity-run centrifugal water pump.
ohammad Jalal Uddin introduced himself as a tube-well mechanic. What is the groundwater situation here?
He said, "Every year, the level has been lowering. Cavitation often disrupts pump operation."
Echoing Jalal, farmers Giasuddin and Abul Kalam said, "Maintenance cost of such pumps amid groundwater depletion is not economically viable."
The farmers said they had thought about replacing it with a submersible pump. But the plan has not been executed. Why?
"Irrigation coverage has shrunk to 100 bighas from 250 bighas in a decade. We are in a dilemma about whether to invest huge amounts of money for irrigation. Sreepur is an upland area, lacking many water bodies. Where can we source water except the underground?" asked Giasuddin.
The sun-tanned old man – a farmer by profession for the last 35 years – looked hopeless.
When asked if they have any idea about the reason behind groundwater depletion, they said that since the Sreepur Pourasabha (municipality) had installed five powerful pumps to extract water, the groundwater table - the upper limit or surface of groundwater- started to drop.
The municipality should not be blamed alone because Gazipur district is an industrial hub that remains a huge consumer of water all the time.
Department of Public Health Engineering's (DPHE) groundwater circle superintendent engineer Saifur Rahman recently informed me that only groundwater shortage-related (dry) seasonal problems constitute around 25% of the land area of Bangladesh.
"In the monsoon, the water table (groundwater) is restored in most of the areas except some commercial cities including Dhaka, Gazipur and Narayanganj because water has been pumped there round the clock," said Saifur.
Two local young businessmen Mollah Mohammad Sohel and Mehedi directed us to a tributary of the River Shitalakshya that flows along the Sreepur-Kapasia border. I crossed over a dried up canal named Sharer Khal. Some children were seen busy mud fishing there.
When I reached close to the Shitalakshya tributary, the two young men pointed to an unattended quay – Goshinga Ghat, around 120 metre from the river foreshore. The quay was built 20 years ago.
Farmer Hussen Bepari, who is in his 60's, lives on the river bank. "The 1988 flood was the last time I saw this river swell. You see how it has shrunk. We are losing water from the surface. Allah knows how long we can extract water from underground."
Hydrologist and co-author of a World Bank-funded study titled "Multi-hazard groundwater risks to the drinking water supply in Bangladesh," Professor Kazi Matin U Ahmed said that people should be provided with proper data on the groundwater table variation.
"This year, the World Water Day is being observed with the theme 'Groundwater – Making the invisible visible.' With proper data," the Dhaka University's geology teacher continued, "the impact and consequences can be made visible."
What kind of data? People should know how much water is stored in the aquifer - a body of permeable rock which can contain or transmit groundwater. And how much water they can extract without drying up the aquifer.
Given the rate of rapid urbanisation, concrete pavements are hindering groundwater recharge - which happens naturally from rainwater reaching the aquifer. Meanwhile, the wetlands are being earth-filled.
The professor said that people might temporarily be able to address water shortage, as well as arsenic contamination, by using submersible pumps. But groundwater is not unlimited. And there is no study on how long we can extract quality water from underground.
"We cannot extract petroleum products independently. There are regulatory bodies. Groundwater is also a precious mineral. But there is no control over water pumping. I strongly recommend a mandated agency with power to implement an integrated water resource management plan and to control the overuse of groundwater," said Matin.
The hydrologist also suggested that the mandated agency should first map the available aquifers, and future modelling is also a must.
"Users should be aware that if they ignore the impacts of depleting groundwater tables, future generation's rights to access water will be violated," Professor Matin concluded.