Residents in remote areas of Bangladesh have started an intense struggle for potable water because of discriminatory budget allocation for those areas and an unrelenting destruction of the ecology -- especially in hilly areas.
Just 5.44% of the Annual Development Program was allocated for the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) sector for fiscal year 2021 - 2022 while a higher percentage was allocated for urban areas compared to remote, chars, hilly, coastal and underdeveloped areas.
A recent study by the Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC) said 59% of residents in Bangladesh have access to safe drinking water while 39% have access to safe sanitation. UNICEF said one in five, or 19% of schools lack safe drinking water, affecting as many as 8.5 million school children.
Woes in the hills, coastal, remote areas
Ananta Dhamai, a resident of southeastern hilly Khagrachari district, said extracting stones from natural hills, falls, mounds and other water sources for commercial purposes in hilly areas and cutting big trees in hilly forests are the prime cause of vanishing water sources in the hills.
“Naturally, water sources get dried up during the dry season in the hills. But these mountain rocks reserve potable waters beneath them which people here in the hilly regions use in summer. But in recent years, indigenous people in the hills run from one hill to another in search of water but return empty-handed,” he told Anadolu Agency.
The increasing collection of rocks from natural falls has destroyed water sources in hills as those sources no longer could hold water in the dry season, said Dhamai, a member of an indigenous community.
On the other hand, during the rainy season, hills become so dangerous for people’s movement. Razing hills and illegal collection of rocks and stones cause the hills to be vulnerable to landslides. And waterfalls in the hills turn mammoth in the rainy season, restricting water collection, said Dhamai.
“So many influential people in the hills established social forestation razing natural forests. But plants or trees like the teak and eucalyptus, acacia are not suitable, rather destroying the ecology of the hills. Even, no bird does not come close to these three,” according to the indigenous rights activist.
Experts urged the government to install pipe water as it is not possible to install deep tube wells in the hills because of the rocky environment.
Woes for potable and household water remain the same for residents of coastal areas. Bangladesh has 19 coastal districts that have a combined population of 42 million. The rise in sea level, cyclones, tidal surges and permanent inundation have affected drinking water sources in the region.
Saleha Banu, 56, still has to walk at least 3 miles to get sweet water for her six-member family in the Koyra sub-district of southwestern Khulna district as the saline water in the rainy season contaminated her nearby fresh water source.
Saline already affected her eyes and skin like hundreds of others in her village, she told Anadolu Agency.
According to the Satkhira District Department of Public Health Engineering, the salinity level is 4,400 milligrams per liter (mg/l) in some areas compared with the permitted threshold of 1,000 mg/l.
Budget discrimination keep situation unchanged, say experts
Hossain Zillur Rahman, an academic and policy maker, told Anadolu Agency that the disparity in budget allocation between urban and rural areas is among the prime causes of the prevailing poor water supply situation.
“We see a huge gap in budget allocation between Dhaka and other cities. A similar situation prevails further in cities and remote areas like haor, hills, coastal area, northwestern remote villages.”
The Dhaka water supply authority takes the lion's share of WASH’s budget, he said. “Project implementation capacity remains a big challenge for Bangladesh,” said Rahman, a leading policy voice on governance and political development.
“Earlier we just emphasized on ensuring a water link between underground source water and tube wells but now we have to ensure safe water to meet SDGs (UN declared Sustainable Development Goals.)”
“Waste management is a big challenge for Bangladesh to ensure safe water and hygiene,” he said, suggesting the use of rainwater in those areas, including Dhaka.
Government takes projects to ease woes
Areef Anowar Khan, executive engineer of the planning division at the Department of Public Health Engineering, admitted the situation of potable water and said officials have forwarded a WASH project with funding from the Asian Development Bank to higher authority to get final approval for the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
“The government has already approved a Taka 10 billion ($1 billion) project for the upcoming 2022-23 fiscal year to supply safe drinking water through reserving rainwater to cover the water demand in all the coastal districts as rainwater is the only cost-effective method in the coastal belt.”
Meanwhile, saltwater desalination using solar power has been taken to supply drinking water to coastal schools, he said.
“We have started providing water (pilot basis) to families in areas like northwestern Chapainawabganj and Rajshahi district through setting up submersible water pumps during the dry season as people here face scarcity of water during the dry season,” he said.
Emphasizing the use of rainwater, he said the authority set a mandatory building code in Dhaka to use technology to reserve rainwater.