A Bangladeshi farmer uses plastic bottles to drip feed water to his crops in Bosnoil village, Chapai Nawabganj district. He learned this technique through a water-saving program run by Caritas. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
It's midday in remote Akkelpur village in northern Bangladesh and the temperature is 40 degrees Celsius.
Dhaneswari Kujur is lining up with other local girls and women to collect drinking water from a deep-tube roadside well for her four-member family.
Up until last year, some 250 villagers like 40-yer-old Kujur suffered from an acute lack of drinking water. When the water table depleted and surface-water sources like ponds dried up, the five shallow tube wells set up by the government were useless during summer.
Like most women in the village, Kujur had to walk up to a kilometer, three times a day, during the summer to collect drinking water from another village.
"It was very hard work collecting the water," says Kujur, a Hindu, from the Oraon tribal group.
"We use pond water for bathing and domestic use, but we had to collect drinking water from far away places as we had no other option," the mother of two told ucanews.com in April.
"Now, it's a great relief that we can get drinking water easily," she says.
A woman returns to her village in northern Bangladesh carrying water that she sourced from a pond. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
The well she now retrieves drinking water from is one of two similar water points that Catholic charity Caritas Bangladesh installed last year with support from the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation.
Each well is bored some 61 meters deep and is capable of providing good drinking water to over 100 people in the village. The wells cost about 50,000 taka (US$641) each, an amount poor villagers like Kujur are unable to afford.
Kujur and her husband are considered landless people. They survive mostly on rice and other crops that they cultivate on two bighas (0.26 hectares) of leased land. Half of what they produce is given to the landowner as per contract.
To grow rice the couple pays 200 taka to a local water pump owner each time they irrigate their rice field. Given that rice requires about 16 irrigations each agricultural season it's a costly crop to produce.
"We don't make a good income from the leased land, so we work as day laborers and earn 150 taka daily and try to maintain the family with that amount," Kujur adds.
Watch this ucanews.com video for more on the water situation in Bangladesh’s north.
Supporting farmers to survive
Subhash Lakra, a farmer from Bosnoil Tompara village used to scratch a living as an irregular mechanic despite having less than a hectare of agricultural land.
Last year, Caritas helped the villagers dig a pond to assist farmers like Lakra. They water they have is still limited but Lakra has been making the most of it in his vegetable garden through using plastic bottles with drip holes. A technique he was shown by Caritas.
"There was no water supply here before and most of the land was barren like a desert," says 26-year-old Lakra. "But now we can produce all kinds of crops and vegetables," he says.
Through using the drip-water technique Larka can produce sweat gourds, eggplants, potatoes, and tomatoes. Each month he can make a profit of between 4,000-5,000 taka per month.
"Without water nothing is possible. We can grow even more crops and vegetables if we can get a sufficient water supply," Lakra says.
A woman collects stored rainwater from a water tank in Damoil village of Chapai Nawabganj district. Catholic charity Caritas provided the tank the community. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
Caritas has conducted multiple initiatives to ease scarcity of water in 10 villages such as Akkelpur in Chapai Nawabganj district.
As part of this the agency has set up over a hundred deep-tube wells, solar-powered pumps and water tanks to filter pond water for drinking and domestic use. It has also distributed some 20 water tanks among, each of which is able to hold 500 liters of rainwater.
Similar projects running in eight northern districts directly benefit some 175,000 people, Caritas officials say.
The agency trains people how to use water efficiently for domestic use and agriculture. It has also planted tens of hundreds of trees in the villages.
Villagers are also encouraged to cultivate crops like sesame and lentils that require less water, plus various species of drought-tolerant rice and vegetables.
"Be it in the household, for agriculture and for sanitation purposes, people need to get into the habit of using water efficiently," says S.M. Golam Rasul, junior program officer of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene project at Caritas Rajshahi.
The reality is, he says, there is limited water.
"We emphasize more on use of surface water rather than ground water," he explains, adding that the lack of water also drives poverty in the region.
"People can grow crops only three or four months a year, so the rest of the year they remain unemployed. Some try migrating to the big cities like Dhaka and survive by pulling rickshaws or day laboring, while others just put up with the poverty and misery," says Rasul.
Children take a wash in a pond in Damoil village in Chapai Nawabganj district. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
Water scarcity during winter and summer is a common ordeal for about 80 percent of the 34 million people who are believed to be living in 16 northern districts in Bangladesh.
Experts blame climate change and man-made factors such as excessive irrigation use as factors that have caused the water crisis in the country's north.
"We can't do much about rainfall, temperature and river flow because they are natural issues, but a major reason for ground water depletion is that we are withdrawing more water than the amount actually being recharged," says Sukleash George Costa, national coordinator of the agricultural research for development program at Caritas.
In Bangladesh, water is both "a blessing and a curse," he says.
"Sometimes, during flooding we have too much water and during drought there isn't enough," he says.
"There's timely water and untimely water and sometimes wrong water. In the south, we have too much water which is saline and can't be used," Costa adds.
In the north, due to water crisis, people try to survive by water rationing, he says.
"We always emphasize judicious use of water," he says adding that this includes maintaining a balance between the extraction and recharging of water.
"People need water, but they also need to learn to survive with limited amounts of it," he adds.
Costa also points out large-scale water extraction for irrigation being conducted by state-backed agencies like Barind Multipurpose Development Authority.
The authority operates 15,200 large groundwater pumps for irrigation and drinking water purposes. These facilities directly benefit some 600,000 people, but they are also blamed for the gradual depletion of groundwater.
Officials admit a lack of foresight.
"Twenty years ago, we didn't consider the negative impact of excessive groundwater extraction, but now we do," says Mohammad Munirujjaman, an executive engineer at the Barind Multipurpose Development Authority.
"So, we are not setting up new deep pumps but increasing surface water use," says Munirujjaman.
The agency has excavated 1,600 kilometers of canals, dug 3,500 ponds for preservation of rainwater and planted 27 million trees in the northern region, he claims.
"In order to reduce pressure on water, we have reduced rice cultivation by 50 percent because it requires lots of water. We have also encouraged people to grow crops like potatoes and tomatoes which require less water," says Munirujjaman.
Boys prepare dusty agricultural land in Bosnoil village, Chapai Nawabganj district in northern Bangladesh. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
In many places in the North, groundwater has plunged by up to 24 meters over the years, according to the Department of Public Health Engineering the agency responsible for water supply and sanitation across Bangladesh.
"We are seriously concerned about ground water depletion in northern Bangladesh. In some areas it's difficult to set up wells due to soil structure, so we are testing feasibilities of high-powered modified pumps to extract water from 25 meters," Saifur Rahman, executive engineer at the agency's research and development wing.
The agency is planning to dig at least 900 ponds in the North over the next few years. They are also aiming to create dams to supply water local populations with water during winter and summer.
However, there are allegations that some local politicians divert construction of wells to their supporters as opposed to making them more accessible to communities in need.
Rahman declined to comment about water supply mismanagement allegations or on claims that political influence has been used in regards to the distribution of wells.