One would expect urban and higher income populations to spend more than the rural and lower-income people on food, housing, water and sanitation.
But for drinking water at least, the scenario in Bangladesh’s coastal districts is quite the opposite.
Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (Wasa) provides water for household use to the city residents for the rate of Tk8.49 for per unit (1,000 litres).
Khulna Wasa charges Tk4.50 for the same volume of water to Khulna city’s inhabitants.
But people living 20km south of that town have been spending Tk10 for 20 litres of drinking water as they have to have salt removed from it via treatment plants.
It is the same scene in most places across the 19 coastal districts. The salinity in land and water defines the lives of humans and all other creatures.
Each and every household in the coastal zone collects rain water in pots and pans for the three to four months of monsoon. Some of the more affluent homes have modern reservoirs.
But for the remaining year, they are dependent on different water providers, both public and private, from where they purchase water for a minimum price of Tk0.50 per litre. This can go up to Tk0.70 in some places.
“During rainy season we collect water from our own harvesting pots for drinking,” said Pushpa Halder, a resident of Saheber Abad village in Dacope upazila, Khulna.
“For the rest of the year, we have to buy drinking water.”
Villagers use the brackish water in the local ponds or rivers for other daily chores, including for washing and bathing.
“Freshwater for bathing is a dream for us,” Pushpa remarked.
Mira Gayen, a 45-year-old mother of three, has been buying drinking water from a Saline Water Treatment Plant located at the local Union Parishad Complex in Dacope for the last few months, paying Tk0.50 per litre.
Asked how much water she usually buys every day, she said her five-member family needed 20 litres of water daily. That means 600 litres of water a month, which costs her Tk300.
According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, the national average household income was Tk11,479 in 2010. In the southern divisions of Barisal and Khulna, the average income was Tk9,158 and Tk9,569 respectively.
At this level of income, the cost of water is about 3% of an average family’s earnings in these areas, and much higher for a poor family.
Hydrologist Prof Ainun Nishat said bearing the cost of this pricey drinking water for a poor household is a burden and there are no viable alternatives.
The cost could lead to poorer families consuming less water, leading to adverse health impacts in the long run, he added.
Impact on health
A study titled “Drinking Water Salinity and Maternal Health in Coastal Bangladesh: Implications of Climate Change” done in 2008 jointly by London Imperial College and Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies said that rates of (pre)eclampsia and gestational hypertension were found to be higher in Bangladesh’s coast compared to non-coastal areas.
The rates were also considerably high in the dry season, when salinity levels on the surface and in the groundwater are higher than in the monsoon season, the study also said.
Bangladesh’s coastal population, comprising of approximately 40 million people, rely heavily on natural water sources like ponds, rivers and tube-wells for obtaining drinking water.
These sources have become severely saline from seawater intrusion caused by environmental changes, and man-made factors including poor water management and shrimp farming.
Salinity has already encroached more than 100km inland from the Bay of Bengal, and the impacts are projected to be exacerbated by rising sea levels due to climate change.
How deep is the problem?
A recent study titled “Distribution of Groundwater Salinity and its Seasonal Variability in the Coastal Aquifers of Bengal Delta” found that groundwater salinity had risen manifold over the level at which it can be consumed in most areas around the coast.
It showed that in most coastal areas the level of salinity (chloride count) in the main or second aquifer ranged from 103 to 12,433 in dry season and 34 to 11,366 in rainy season.
Different initiatives for freshwater
To ease the situation and provide fresh drinking water to the coastal population, different government and non-government organisations have been setting up different types of interventions. These include excavating ponds, setting up ponds sand filter (PSF) and reverse osmosis filter technology.
Water Aid Bangladesh, an NGO, is currently setting up different types of technologies including rainwater harvesting and reverse osmosis filter systems in the coastal zone, to ensure freshwater sources for the people.
Recently, the organisation has set up a reverse osmosis filter along with two water vending machines in the Dacope Upazila Complex from where the local people have been collecting water with the price of Tk0.50 for a litre.
Md Khairul Islam, country director of Water Aid Bangladesh, said: “We have set up the vending machine, on a trial basis, to see if such interventions can ease the situation.”
Reported by Dhaka Tribune