DHAKA, Bangladesh (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — The availability of safe drinking water, particularly in Bangladesh's “hard-to-reach areas,” is expected to worsen as the country continues to suffer the effects of climate change, experts say.
According to a study by the World Bank's Water and Sanitation Program, some 28 million Bangladeshis, or just over 20 percent of the total population, are living in harsh conditions in the so-called “hard-to-reach areas” that make up a quarter of the country's land area. The study found that char — land that emerges from riverbeds as a result of the deposit of sediments — is among the most inaccessible, along with hilly areas, coastal regions and haors, bowl-shaped wetlands areas in northeastern Bangladesh.
“People living in hard-to-reach areas are often vulnerable to natural calamities like flooding, riverbank erosion and siltation," said Rokeya Ahmed, a water and sanitation specialist at the World Bank. “As a result of climate change, salinity in Bangladesh’s coastal areas has increased (a great deal), causing a lack of sweet water. Women of coastal and haor areas need to go miles and miles to collect a pitcher of safe drinking water."
Worsening weather extremes, that bring floods, storm surges and cyclones, are contributing to increases in water salinity and other problems accessing clean water, the report said. Shahdat Hossain, a grocer in Matlab district, a hard-to-reach area some 50 kilometres from Dhaka, the country’s capital, said his town is now subject to regular river erosion and flooding.
“River bank erosion has turned many people of this area into refugees," he says. "Since this area is very close to the Bay of Bengal, the amount of arsenic in the groundwater is also very high. We need to dig much deeper to get arsenic-free water."
Experts fear that the approaching summer could intensify the struggle to find potable water. Shareful Hassan, a consultant on geographic information systems and a researcher on the World Bank study, says surface water sources have already dried up in many parts of the country, which will have a heavy impact on drinking water access, sanitation and ecosystems.
“In the drought-prone Barind Tract area, in north Bangladesh, you have to dig more than 350 metres to get safe drinking water,” he said, adding that the situation is expected to worsen since unusually low rainfall in the area means underground aquifers are not being replenished.
Even in Dhaka, people have been reporting dwindling water supplies. Eftekharul Alam, an engineer for the Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation, said groundwater levels in the city are falling drastically as a result of excessive extraction to meet the growing megacity's needs.
Dhaka’s underground aquifers are usually recharged with water that percolates underground in nearby districts, but the levels of underground fresh water in those districts have also dropped, allowing seawater to start seeping into the capital's aquifers. If this continues, experts say, Dhaka's drinking water could become increasingly undrinkable.
According to Ainun Nishat, a climate change expert and vice chancellor of BRAC University in Dhaka, over the last five years rainfall across Bangladesh has dropped by 50 percent and become increasingly unpredictable. That has led to a variety of problems, including growing salinity in groundwater.
“Salinity in the water of coastal areas has now reached over 20 parts per thousand, but the human body can only tolerate 5 parts per thousand," he said.
Nishat says the best option for drought- and saline-prone areas is to preserve rainwater in artificial ponds and distribute it to communities. And he agrees with other experts that the government must turn to technology to bring drinking water to those who need it.
Filtration and desalination plants are expensive, but experts say they offer the only chance to avert a looming crisis. Nishat suggests installing sand filter systems, in which hand pumps are used to suck water from artificial ponds through a filter that makes the water potable.
For those living in hard-to-reach areas, the search for a solution has become a matter of urgency.
“We now frequently face cyclones and flash floods which cause the swamping of croplands by saltwater and put us in danger," said Shafiqul Islam, a farmer in Barisal, a southern Bangladesh district that the World Bank study categorised as an "extremely" hard-to-reach area. “Our lives are under severe threat. Getting safe drinking water has become a big challenge."
Syful Islam is a journalist with the Financial Express newspaper, published in Dhaka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org