A drop in the ocean of persistent water crisis
Across five coastal districts - Khulna, Bagerhat, Satkhira, Patuakhali and Barguna, at least 70 desalination water plants, called Reverse Osmosis (RO) plants have been installed, while 13 are under construction
Twenty nine-year-old Sharmin Begum, a mother of four, lives on the bank of mighty Shibsa at the south edge of Sutarkhali – the remotest union of the country.
Despite having an abundance of river water around them, Sharmin's family, along with a hundred others, suffer from an acute crisis of fresh water. Even the tube well that Sharmin's husband Nurul had installed on an NGO loan pulls up saline water.
"The available water is undrinkable. If you wash your face with it, you will feel your eyes burning," Sharmin said.
In the dry season, the rise in sea level and the reduced freshwater flow from the upstream cause the freshwater to turn into saline water around the coastal belt in Bangladesh.
To mitigate the water shortage, the fisher families harvest rainwater during monsoon. But their water storage capacity is very limited and they have to depend on pond water – also excessively saline – to manage household chores.
In an afternoon in late January, Sharmin said, "Our reserves of harvested rainwater have finished already. Now we are drinking water that was collected from far north, in Khulna."
Unlike an urban utility service, the water supply here is not smooth as it has to be carried from Khulna by trawlers. Sometimes the water is brackish, causing frequent bowel disorders in people who drink it, particularly youngsters.
"We are extremely poor. But water is life. We have to collect it at any cost," Sharmin said.
Eight months ago, Sharmin gave birth to twin babies. The malnourished mother cannot properly breastfeed the babies. So her husband Nurul compromises with the family's water demand and buys supplementary milk, which is quite expensive for the poor fisherman.
"The adults drink less to save water for the children. We wash ourselves, our clothes and utensils with the available saline water," said Sharmin.
Often the adults say they are adapting to salinity. "But this is actually a compromise with the health of children and women. Most of the children are stunted and underweight while the women are suffering from a vaginal infection," said Basanti Mandal, working at Kalabagi as a community nutrition and health promoter of an NGO for the last three years.
Sharmin, her family members and neighbours started to face an acute crisis of drinking water following the devastating cyclone Aila in 2009. The aggressive Shibsa, powered by tidal surges, washed away their ancestral lands and turned all the sweet water ponds around Kalabagi (located 45 km south of the Khulna district headquarters) completely saline.
In the post-disaster period, restoration of the ponds was initiated. Several water houses were built to harvest rainwater. And the affected families were provided with water-purifying pills. But the recovery didn't last long.
Soon after the project implementing agencies handed it over to community management, regular bleaching and necessary renovation of the water houses was ignored.
"At the same time,people didn't accept the water purified by pills as drinkable, as purifiers don't change the dirty colour and salty taste of the water," said Murari Mohan Halder, member of the Ward No 2 of Sutarkhali Union Parishad.
When a desalination water plant, called Reverse Osmosis (RO) plant, was launched just beside Sharmin's house, she felt relieved. She collected the desalinated water and tasted it. "It's like sweet water. At least for the dry season, we no longer have to depend on the water supplied from Khulna," she said.
On 23 January, hundreds of Kalabagi villagers flocked to the RO plant installed at the ward 9 area under Sutarkhali Union Parishad.
Non-government Heed Bangladesh has implemented the project with a full grant from a collaboration of the European Union, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office of the UK Government; and the Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF).
Across five coastal districts: Khulna, Bagerhat, Satkhira, Patuakhali and Barguna, the collaboration has facilitated the installation of at least 70 RO plants, while 13 are under construction at places where ultra-poor communities are a majority.
Each RO plant can produce approximately 8,000 litres of drinking water a day for around 250 families. The consumers can collect the water at Tk0.50 per litre price.
The day we visited Sutarkhali, a 65-year old Abdul Karim was overseeing his wife Rasheda and others queued before the tap of RO plant.
Karim's only son Ataur died from heart valve failure when he was 12. His remaining child, Sulekha, was married off to another fisherman and now lives at a distant village. So, Rasheda is Karim's only companion at their thatched house, close to the embankment of the River Shibsa.
Even for the two-member family, harvested rainwater in two 50-litre Matkas finishes within three months of the post-monsoon period.
When the only earner of the family ekes out a living by catching young crabs from the Sundarbans, Rasheda finds collecting brackish water from a 1km far Chairman Bari pond economic, rather than purchasing water from Khulna.
"My wife is ailing. Our daughter doesn't like her mother carrying a heavy pitcher to fetch water from a distant pond," Karim said, adding that he would now collect drinking water from the desalination plant located close to his house.
Nimai Kumar Roy, a member of Ward No 9 of the Sutarkhali Union Parishad, said around 750 families live in his constituency and three-fourth of the population has been affected by river erosion.
"Drinking water crisis is acute here. Easy access to drinking water is crucial not only for public health, but also for agriculture and the economy in the area," Nimai reminded.
On 22 December 2022, Dacope upazila was declared the country's remotest sub-district housing more than two lakh people.
Dacope Upazila Nirbahi Officer Mintu Biswash said the entire population is affected by drinking water shortage, while the ultra-poor are the ultimate victims of the public health hazard and economic loss.
"Government and NGOs are providing the affected people with water tanks. Moreover, the government has initiated several projects, including building rainwater harvesting capacity of around 1 lakh litres across the entire coastal belt," Mintu said, adding that the projects will take at least five years to be completed.
"Although the available RO plants don't cover the entire affected population," Mintu continued, "these are a great benefit to the ultra-poor."
Installation of a RO plant is costly as it takes Tk30-50 lakh, depending on the variation of locations. Moreover, operation cost is not negligible as a plant costs electricity, replacement bills and Tk13,000 monthly salary for its operator.
"The plants run on subsidy. Continuation of subsidy for the next couple of years is necessary because people collect the treated water only for a limited time [dry season]," said Ratan Kumar Adhikari, Heed Bangladesh's Khulna Region Manager. Under his supervision, four RO plants are in operation at Sutarkhali.
PKSF's Pathways to Prosperity for Extremely Poor People Project Director Dr Sharif Ahmed Chowdhury reminded that in many cases, people of the community were found lacking ownership and neglecting proper maintenance of any establishment related to water supply.
He believes the plants' long-term sustainability (operational and technical) will be ensured if profit is generated there and the managers, showing accountability, get a share of the benefits.
"To keep the plants sustainable, strong community management is crucial. At the same time, the government's intervention is needed," Sharif concluded.