A village woman collects filtered water from a pond through a tube well in Bangladesh's Khulna district on April 3. Some 70 percent of people in the coastal region of Bangladesh rely on surface water for daily living. (Photo supplied by Caritas Khulna)
“Water, water everywhere, Nor any drop to drink” — the verse from Samuel Coleridge’s famous The Rime of the Ancient Mariner could describe the life of Komola Mondol, a villager on the coast of southern Bangladesh.
Born in Satkhira district, the 46-year-old Hindu woman lives in neighboring Khulna district with her husband, one son and two daughters.
Both districts lie at the mouth of rivers that flow through the dense Sundarbans mangrove forest and directly connect to the mighty Bay of Bengal.
Throughout her life, Mondol has seen how badly people suffer from an acute lack of water for drinking and daily living, largely due to the intrusion of saline water from the sea.
“In our paternal home we used to dig holes on the sands of the river to get drinkable water or walk miles to fetch water from a pond. Here, we collect water three times a day from a Baptist church about two kilometers away which has a filtered water supply system,” she told ucanews.com.
Mondol or her husband need to queue for hours to get water. “Both of us are day laborers, so every day we waste a lot of time collecting water. It is painful but we have no other option,” she said.
Catholic charity Caritas Khulna dug a large pond in the family’s village in February to overcome the water shortage, but it is still not in operation.
“We are waiting for the rainy season to fill up the pond so that we can use the water from there and reduce our misery,” Mondol added.
Modhu Biswas, 30, a Baptist Christian from Shomorio Christian Para, a neighboring village in Khulna, faced the same problem until recently.
“For years all 30 families in the village had to walk five kilometers to collect drinking water. Villagers there were unhappy to share water with us. We had to endure humiliation to get water,” Biswas told ucanews.com.
Three months ago, Caritas Khulna used funding from Caritas Germany to transform a stagnant pond into a reservoir that now supplies water for 400-500 people within two kilometers.
Climate change, salinity and water crisis
Finding a supply of pure water is an everyday problem for coastal villagers. In other parts of Bangladesh, groundwater from tube wells and deep wells, set up by the government or privately, are common sources of safe water.
The high level of salinity in groundwater in coastal areas makes it undrinkable. For the same reason, river water is also unusable.
Ponds and water tanks have been set up by the government and aid agencies like Caritas to preserve rainwater for filtering and daily use in some villages. The system is inadequate but villagers try to keep their body and soul together with what they have.
The problem reaches boiling point during winter and summer when rainfall stops and most of the surface water sources dry up.
The increasing intrusion of saline water is an effect of climate change, according to Tanvir Ahmed Chowdhury, an assistant professor in the soil, water and environment department at Dhaka University.
“Our research and observation show that in coastal areas the level of salinity is on the rise, and it is also on the rise in groundwater. One of the reasons is inundation of more areas during high tide. Upstream water flow is going down and downstream flow is increasing,” Chowdhury, who also hails from Khulna district, told ucanews.com.
“Climate change takes time to occur and it is happening slowly but steadily in the coastal region. Initially, we cannot do much about it, but the government has a deltaic plan for climate change adaption and mitigation, which requires long and meticulous efforts and execution.”
Village women return home after collecting clean water in Khulna district on April 3. During dry the season most coastal villagers in Bangladesh suffer an acute shortage of clean water. (Photo supplied by Caritas Khulna)
Sumon Malakar, a program officer for the Sustainable Food Security and Livelihood Project under Caritas Khulna, said coastal villagers suffer from unbearable misery due to a lack of clean water during the dry season.
“There is a huge hue and cry in communities during dry season. Sometimes people drink unfiltered water from ponds, suffer from diseases and die from waterborne diseases,” Malakar, based in Satkhira district, told ucanews.com.
Government officials say efforts are being made to reduce the suffering of coastal villagers.
“About 70 percent of people drink from water ponds and water tanks all the year round, so we have prioritized digging ponds and setting up water tanks that can preserve rainwater in villages. We are also collaborating with NGOs in this regard,” said Mustafizur Rahman, an assistant engineer in the public health engineering department in Satkhira district.
Caritas strives for climate change adaption
Jibon D. Das, regional director of Caritas Khulna, says the agency is running various projects to help people cope with climate change effects including the water crisis.
“We have 18 running projects directly and indirectly related to help people cope with the impacts of climate change. We have dug innumerable ponds and set up thousands of water tanks in villages, not just for drinking water but also for irrigation. Some 200,000 people are benefiting from Caritas initiatives,” Das told ucanews.com.
Caritas also provides water filtering systems and water purification tablets. “The coastal region is a priority area for us, so we are always careful to strive for means that can reduce the suffering of the community,” Das added.
Low-lying Bangladesh is located on floodplains of the world’s largest river delta system that empties into the Bay of Bengal, making the country of more than 160 million vulnerable to natural disasters such as cyclones, tidal surges and flooding.
Various studies regularly list Bangladesh as among the most vulnerable countries to climate change.
Climate scientists warn that a predicted sea level rise due to global warming and the melting of polar icebergs by 2050 has the potential to wipe away the entire coastal region of Bangladesh and displace about 20 million people.