Water crisis inspires innovative solutions in Bangladesh

Community people dug the pond to store rainwater and inspire surface water use.

In the early summer morning heat, Sazzad Hossain sits for hours pondering what to do about the impending water crisis in Bangladesh.

Water flowing from his tube well had already started decreasing in late February, a month and a half before the summer’s arrival. But in the previous few days, as the sun generates more scorching heat, the drought becomes more and more severe.

The mercury rises to 115° Fahrenheit, but this is no time for fear. Sazzad decides it is the ideal time to equip himself and take necessary measures.

This sexagenarian farmer from Barind area of Rajshahi district in Bangladesh, a South Asian country, has been facing the water crisis during summers for over a decade. Heavy use of groundwater, decreasing rainfalls, and inadequate surface water sources plunge thousands of farmers into crisis every year.

The Barind Tract, spanning around 3,500 square miles in the northwestern part of Bangladesh, is comparatively at a higher elevation than the adjoining floodplains. Even when the floodplains are submerged during monsoons, the land in the tract remains dry. Its adjoining rivers do not recharge the groundwater layer because of its lower elevation.

As the population increases, many of the surface water sources are filled with soil to build houses. Meanwhile, the farmers need to pump groundwater for irrigation, putting tremendous pressure on water layers. During the dry days, the majority of tube wells for drinking water become unusable.

“For the last five years, the tube well at my yard cannot pump water during summer days,” Hossain said. Summer is the major season for paddy cultivation, requiring around 2,000 liters of water for production of one kilogram of rice.

“People of our neighborhood have to walk miles to fetch drinking water. Sometimes we drink less to save water for the next day,” he said.

According to statistics from the Water Development Board, the government agency in Bangladesh that monitors water resources, the top layer of groundwater in Barind Tract was found in as far as 10 meters deep in 2004, but by 2012 the layer depleted dramatically to 29 meters.

“The situation is deteriorating with every passing year,” said Chowdhury Sarwar Jahan, professor at Geology and Mining department of the University of Rajshahi in Bangladesh.

Naren Hasda, a farmer in the Barind area, said, “Now people need to dig even 60 meters to reach drinking water layer.”

Water scarcity not only affects the harvest of seasonal crops, it also contributes to diseases and ecological destruction. “Many animals have already become extinct,” Hasda added.

To cope with the water crisis, farmers in the Barind Tract are opting for alternative water sources, rather than relying on groundwater. Community people, with the help of local government institutions, are digging ponds and canals to store rainwater. They also clean existing surface water sources to reduce their dependence on groundwater.

Since 2015, the Development Association for Self-reliance, Communication and Health (DASCOH), an NGO in Bangladesh, has been implementing an integrated water resource management program involving community people, civil society members and local government institutions,.

The program applies the 4R approach: reduce, reuse, recycle, and recharge. It helps communities reduce the use of groundwater and clean water in the existing ponds, so people can use surface water.

Hossain hopes to inspire communities to reuse more water.

“People in my neighborhood are digging new ponds, canals and setting up large jars on rooftops to store rainwater,” he said. Places for new ponds and canals are chosen adjacent to households and agricultural land to help people use reserved water both for irrigation and domestic use during crisis hours.

Hasda said, “We are also cultivating fish in the ponds and growing vegetables on the bank of ponds, which makes us economically solvent.” They also recycle the water used for household work to cultivate vegetables.

Community people, with the help of local government institutions, have set up pipes on the rooftops to drain rainwater to recharge groundwater layers. The Geology and Mining department of the University of Rajshahi also set up groundwater quality testing machines in 35 locations in the Barind area. Researchers from the department regularly examine groundwater quality and layers.

The program encourages farmers to cultivate alternative crops like lentils, vegetables and fruits, which consume less water and help farmers make more money.

“In this way, production cost decreases and farmers enjoy more benefit without causing pressure on water source,” Hossain said.        

Hasda said that people from the community, in cooperation with local government institutions, have formed committees to take care of the initiatives and opened a bank account to save money, 20 percent income from selling agricultural produce, to take care of surface water sources.

“It requires cleaning and dredging every year; we use the money to take care of the process,” Hasda said.

Akramul Haque, chief executive officer of DASCOH, said this environmentally friendly approach is helping people cope with the water crisis.

Tareq Mahamud, a water and sanitation expert in Bangladesh, said this sustainable approach will help protect the next generation from another water crisis. “We now need an integrated policy from the government to engage more people in the process.”

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