By Rafiqul Islam
BANDARBAN, Bangladesh, Sept 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Collecting drinking water from springs in this part of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a forested area in southeast Bangladesh, is not for the faint-hearted.
Not only must Changla Mro and other women of the Mro ethnic group trek for hours along steep paths slicing through trees and bamboo, they must also brave snakes, wild pigs and fishing cats that lurk in the thick undergrowth.
But since a water collection and treatment system was installed a year ago, serving about 21 families living in Bandarban district, such dangers have faded into memory.
"Two women were victims of snake bites last time they went to collect water at night time," Changla Mro told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Now we have no fear of snake bites or wild animals attacking since we collect our drinking and household water from the water plant."
Around the world, deforestation, greater weather extremes linked to climate change and population growth are putting ever larger demands on the world's limited supply of fresh water.
Finding innovative ways to capture and conserve it, to keep supplies steady throughout the year, is a growing priority.
FEWER TREES, LESS WATER
Water is a particularly precious commodity in the 5,500 sq mile (14,200 sq km) Hill Tract area of Bangladesh, home to roughly equal numbers of Bengali-speaking settlers and tribal people from 13 ethnic groups.
Years of deforestation have stripped away the soil's ability to conserve water, leading to shortages in the dry season when most of the surface water evaporates.
This is acutely felt in the districts of Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachhari where the Mro community live.
Kangchag Mro, 50, said she used to spend hours in search of water in springs and streams, and was afraid of catching waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea and cholera.
But now clean drinking water gushes from taps at the community's water treatment plant, a small, concrete building topped with a sheet of corrugated iron.
"Collecting water in this hilly area is a really hard task. But the water plant makes our job easy," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation with a smile.
A hillside reservoir 500 metres away supplies the water plant, which was built with funding from the Arannayk Foundation, a joint forest conservation initiative of the Bangladesh and U.S. governments.
The man-made reservoir collects water that flows down from the hills. The water then goes through a pipeline to the treatment facility below where it is purified for household use.
The success of the gravity flow water system, which does not require expensive pumps, has prompted plans for a wider rollout.
Chief engineer of the Department of Public Health Engineering, Md Wali Ullah, said the government was considering plans to supply water to more indigenous communities in the Hill Tract area.
Ullah said his department had already sent a proposal to other related government ministries.
STEPPING UP FOREST PROTECTION
Mro leader Khamchang Mro said his community now realised the importance of forests, which act as a sponge to collect rainfall during the monsoon season and release it slowly into streams and rivers.
Community members now have been trying to conserve forested areas to ensure a consistent flow of water to springs and canals all year round.
"We reforested the degraded area of our village forests," Khamchang Mro said. "As a result, our village forest has now gained a healthy condition."
Farid Ahmed Khan, the executive director of Arannayk Foundation, said local communities had no alternative but to protect their forests.
"If forests are degraded, there will be a severe water crisis," Khan warned.
(Editing by Katie Nguyen and Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)