Excreta Matters Newsletter | Centre for Science and Environment

Excreta Matters Newsletter


Editorial: Follies in a place of abundance

A tradition is a belief or behaviour within a society of significant meaning with origins in the past. In Bangladesh, ponds are the traditional source of water. Shallow dug wells are the source of drinking water but they have rapidly swallowed by the handpump revolution. Instead of diarrhoea, local people got the gift of arsenicosis from handpump water. Now, the wiser for this experience, there is a move back to the surface for drinking water at least.

The first problem to be solved in using surface water – from ponds or wells – is removing bacteria. The humble sand filter has come to the rescue. Called the pond sand filter (PSF), these remove practically all the bacteria and turbidity from water. They are filters made of layers of brick chips and sand into which pond water is pumped. Clean water comes out of the filter and people who drink this water say they don’t have recurrent stomach ailments. Again, they use locally available material.

The second problem is reducing the contamination of ponds and wells. One way is to raise the walls around ponds so no surface runoff enters them and then fence them to keep out animals. Another is to build a cement skirting around wells and raise a wall around them to keep surface water out. A third is to use shock chlorination, the addition of a large amount of bleaching powder or similar source of chlorine, to kill bacteria; this does spoil the taste but add to the filters’ effectiveness. A fourth is to use to use alum, moringa seeds or another coagulating agent to clear the water; this also reduces the bacteria load.

The third is to ensure people only use filtered water for drinking and cooking. This needs considerable efforts from local NGOs or the Department of Public Health Engineering. The results are mixed: NGOs have taken this seriously by the Department has a hardware-only approach. Its filters typically fall into disuse within months. Sometimes, local NGOs fix them and train local people to manage them. The lack of universal maintenance is telling and a pressing need.

The clear lesson is – build on a traditional system. Adding filters to ponds is a simple idea but takes ingenuity to see. In the coastal areas of Bangladesh, people have tried reverse osmosis, deep tubewells, artificial aquifers, transporting water by boat and solar distillation. All are much more expensive than PSFs, less durable and indeed amount to follies. This part of the country has an abundance of ponds that only need incremental treatment to become drinkable. The costs are low, at about Taka 125,000 for a PSF that can serve a community of 250 – 300, compared to Taka 534,000 for an artificial aquifer or Taka 350,000 for a reverse osmosis system. Best of all, there is no running cost and it can be looked after by local people.

What came home to me strongly in Koira and other areas south of Khulna was the abundance of water and its seasonality. It would make sense to have a seasonal strategy for water, where rainwater is stored and used during the monsoons, ponds till they run dry in February or March, and wells thereafter. If necessary, an additional source such as reverse osmosis could be provided during the dry season but these should be minimized as they are expensive to set up and run.

People also find PSFs the easiest to use and a safeguarded pond does not have two things that are hardest to get rid of – arsenic and salinity. Digging, deepening or safeguarding a pond is cheap, needs minimal skills, uses abundant rain water and leverages what is already there. It is common sense to maximize this common resource instead of parachuting in new technology. As we have seen in the case of arsenic, all technology does not solve problems but can exacerbate them.

Nitya Jacob, CSE
Haors in Bangladesh: Water woes in a wet land
The availability of safe drinking water in Bangladesh's "hard to reach areas" will reduce drastically as the country is facing the heat of climate change. According to a World Bank's report in 2012, 20 per cent of the people in Bangladesh live in the "hard to reach areas". Haor, a bowl-shaped wetland area in the country is one of such areas.

Haor areas in Bangladesh are large shaped floodplains with unique hydrogeological characters. There are a total of 411 haors with a total area of 1.99 million hectare. They are located mainly in the north-eastern region of Bangladesh. The main districts in which this wetland occurs are the districts of Sunamganj, Habiganj, Netrakona, Kishoreganj, Sylhet, Maulvibazar and Brahmanbaria.

Fishermen in Haor
Source: Aloshikha Rajihar Social Development Centre, Bangladesh

There are 373 haors in these six districts. The total area covered by the haors in these districts is almost 43 per cent of the total area covered by this wetland in the whole country. The main problem faced by the people of haor is the flash floods. The haor areas remain below water for 5-6 months a year (between May to October). These areas are mostly inhabited by the poor who lack access to basic water and sanitation services. The main sources of drinking water are tubwells, pond and river. About 78.7 per cent of people source drinking water from shallow tubewells and about 20.4 per cent depend on deep tubwells for the said purpose according to NGO Forum, a Bangladesh based NGO. According to a survey by NGO Forum, on an average each person in haor area has to travel 42 metres to fetch drinking water. About 95 per cent of the women folk in the haor areas are involved in collecting the drinking water. During the monsoons, the tubewells remain submerged in water and during the lean period the groundwater level in these areas go down drastically. Hence the people in these areas face water problems through out the year.

Due to insufficient sanitation, the source of drinking water in the haor areas becomes unfit for drinking due to bacteriological contamination. Aloshikha Rajihar Social Development Centre, a Bangladesh based NGO, says that different types of water borne diseases were found to be common among haor areas. The NGO surveyed the haor areas of southern Bangladesh and found that 80% households suffer from diarrhoea. Dysentry, cholera, typhoid and skin diseases are also common in the haor areas. High incidences of water-borne diseases in the haor areas increase the morbidity and mortality rate which are the major causes of poverty for these localities. Apart from bacteriological contamination, the groundwater in these areas show high concentration of arsenic and iron according to UNICEF report of 2009.

Day to day life in Haor Area
Source: Aloshikha Rajihar Social Development Centre, Bangladesh

According to the surveys carried out by the different agencies, it has been shown that there is lack of technical options and awareness in the haor areas for drinking water and sanitation problems. The sustainable development of the area will be highly affected by the climate change say the experts. According to them a master plan is required for this area to harness the development potentials by addressing the different issues. There is also a great need to gain comprehensive understanding of the hydrological and hydro-morphological characteristics and conditions, land-use patterns, ecological sensitivity and water quality situation of this wetland. The Bangladesh Haor and Wetland Development Board (BHWDB) developed in 2000 for the integrated development of haor areas, under Ministry of Water Resources, has taken the initiative to prepare a comprehensive Master Plan with a view to preserve, protect and restore the eco-system as well as protect the people of this area from natural disasters and improve the livelihood of poor people.

Sushmita Sengupta, CSE
More than 90 percent population of Bangladesh got access to water services
Within the last decade, Bangladesh has made a significant progress in water supply. Today, more than 90 percent population of Bangladesh is being said to have access to water supply. There are many factors that contributed towards this change.

In the last few years, Bangladesh has initiated a number of significant policy developments to provide its population with access to safe water services. These developments include the formation of its National Water Policy for Safe Water and Sanitation in 1998 that places emphasis on the concepts of decentralisation and participation of the users at every level of delivering water and sanitation services and, aims to deliver positive changes to the existing institutional arrangement to enhance the delivery of safe water and sanitation services. This is followed by the Sector Development Framework 2004 that further interprets the 1998 policy guidelines. A Pro-Poor Strategy 2005 was formulated to target the under privileged throughout the country to provide them with access to water services.

Particularly, in urban areas Bangladesh has a centralised government water delivery arrangement based on a supply driven approach. However, this system is a complete top-down institutional set-up. As a result, this arrangement does not really respond to the users’ needs and, understandably, this set up affects its performance in terms of delivering water services particularly to the urban poor. The institutional arrangement that is filling this gap left by formal water delivery in Bangladesh is the community based arrangement. There are a number of community based arrangements that are delivering water services both at the rural and the urban levels. In Bangladesh, the majority of this arrangement is supported by the NGOs (non-government organisations), although, there are a few examples of self-assisted community water provisions as well. At the national level, the potential of community based organisations has been acknowledged in the government’s National Water Policy1998 and also supported by the government as an effective arrangement to work alongside the public provision in order to fill the gap in the service delivery specifically targeting the poor communities. This arrangement is more effective because of its straight approach which can respond to the need of the community very quickly. Today, there are more than two thousand NGO in Bangladesh and majority of them are involved in the area of water supply. Undoubtedly, the community based water provision has a huge contribution in increasing the number of the people with access to water supply. However, the sustainability of this achievement is still questionable both in terms of the approach and the availability of the resources to sustain this change. One of the limitations of NGO programmes is the funding period. And often the projects stop or fail once the funding is over. The second concern is the lack of government’s direct involvement in such projects, which to some extent violates people’s rights to have access to adequate water services. Often communities get involved in such programmes because of desperation as they do not receive the basic amenities such as water and sanitation facilities from their governments, even thought it is their right. With the lack of direct government role, the community based programmes, despite their potential to deliver will always remain a shortcut with a concern about their sustainability.

Amandeep Kang, CSE
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