Water source for poorest Bangladeshis under threat

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 20 April 2012 10:40 GMT
Extreme weather linked to climate change is contaminating coastal ponds, causing health problems and hurting incomes

HANOI (AlertNet) – Tens of thousands of small ponds in coastal zones that are the main sources of fresh water for millions of poor Bangladeshis are under threat from climate-induced hazards, initial research findings suggest.

Up to 35 million people who rely on the ponds could face shortages of safe drinking water, as well as health and hygiene hazards and livelihood problems, as a result of worsening climate-linked floods, drought, saline intrusion, storm surges and erratic rainfall, Golam Rabbani from Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, told AlertNet.

“These are small ponds but (provide) huge value and huge services for these poorest of the poor communities,” Rabbani, who has been working on the research since 2009, said on the opening day of the 6th International Conference on Community-Based Adaptation to Climate Change on Thursday.

“The poorest of the poor communities depend on pond water for all their domestic needs including drinking water, cooking, bathing, washing,” he said.

“Some of the households and local communities use it to have small irrigation for cultivating vegetables and gardening and some also cultivate fish in the pond,” he added.

With a coastline of 710 kilometres ( (1,130 miles) along the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh is no stranger to storm surges or salinity intrusion.

Nevertheless, the issue is becoming more of a concern because the weather is now changing. In particular, more frequent cyclones are occuring, Rabbani told AlertNet.

“In the history of the last 100 years, Bangladesh faced cyclone events once every three years, but if you look at the cyclonic events from 2007 to 2010, we faced five,” he said.

Cyclones formed in the Bay of Bengal that usually do not reach land are now getting to the coastal areas, he added.  

LIVELIHOODS, HEALTH AFFECTED

A recent study of 300 households living around eight ponds in a coastal sub-district near Chittagong found that 90 percent of the people are dependent on these ponds, and farming and fish cultivation bring in between $600 to $1,200 a year for each of the families, he said.

However, higher temperatures during the pre-monsoon months of March, April and May meant the water levels became low in the ponds and salinity intrusion occurred, he said.

This has led not only to a loss of income and livelihoods but also to worsening health, with 60 to 80 percent of households suffering from diarrhoea, dysentery and other water-borne diseases.

On the other hand, saltwater and flooding intrusion into ponds from storm surges also has “huge implications for the people in the area because they don’t have any other options for safe drinking water or water for domestic needs,” he said.

“They are completely dependant on aid water from the government or aid agencies or development partners,” he added.  

After Cyclone Aila hit in May 2009, one community attempted to clean the pond they depended on, but found it impossible because they didn’t have enough money to run a pump, Rabbani said. The community ended up relying on water aid for a full year.

DIFFICULTY RESPONDING

In areas where large number of ponds are affected by extreme weather, even the government will face difficulties responding, Rabbani noted.

“In one small sub-district, there are more than 4,000 ponds. So (government) cannot clean them all. It has to be done by some other groups, maybe by non-governmental organisations or by community initiative,” he said.

But the poorest community rarely know how to organise such help, or who to speak to to get assistance.

Communities are looking into measures to protect their ponds, though, Rabbani said. For instance, one option “is to have some kind of wall around this pond and at a height so that the cyclone can come but it won't submerge,” he said.

The second option is to have alternate sources of water, such as harvested rainwater, which could supplement ponds particularly during the dry pre-monsoon seasons.

“The third option is that if you don't have any of the above two options fast, you need to have a plan to relocate these people,” he warned.