Mindless extraction behind water crisis
Residents of Middle Halishahar of Chittagong city are facing a tremendous water crisis because three private drinking water companies have been extracting most of the groundwater of the area for the last three years.
Syed Enamul Haque Muniri, a resident of the area, said Chittagong Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (Wasa) does not supply water to the area, so people get water for drinking and washing from shallow tubewells.
Few years ago people used to use pond water for washing too. But most of the ponds have been filled up as population increased. So people now mainly depend on the tubewells.
Rafiqul Islam Khan, a resident of Jafar Khan Para recently said, "Our shallow tubewells nowadays cannot pump any water. The motor of my water pump broke down twice this week since it could not suck in enough water from underground."
Rafiqul blamed the three commercial drinking water suppliers for the depletion of the groundwater level.
He said the three private water plants pump out a massive amount of water.
Dr Mohammad Mosharraf Hossain, associate professor of the Institute of Forestry and Environmental Sciences at the University of Chittagong, said the short term effect of wholesale extraction of groundwater in the area would be receding level of groundwater which already started, so people using shallow tubewells would not get water.
Around three years ago two private companies named RM Pure Drinking Water, and Drop Pure Drinking Water started selling jars of water using deep tubewells to extract groundwater from the area.
As the business proved profitable, another nameless private company also started the business by setting up another deep tubewell in Jafar Khan Para in 2010.
Local residents alleged that all three companies run their pumps for most part of the day, 7 days a week, resulting in a drop of groundwater level. Now the residents of the area are not getting water at their shallow tubewells.
The quality of these companies' "pure drinking water" is also disputable.
Several buyers are suspicious about whether the plants properly treat the extracted water for drinking.
Nasir Uddin, a former client of RM said, "I found moss in RM water, so I stopped buying." Some other buyers echoed Nasir.
Although RM and Drop water plants have labs and some equipment, no chemist was found at the plants when The Daily Star visited those.
Staff of the two plants said chemists visit the plants occasionally, but they themselves know what chemicals to use.
About extracting large amount of groundwater, Sajal Kumar Roy, owner of RM, said they only extract 7,000 litres daily while Md Arif, a staff of Drop, said they only extract 3,000 litres daily.
But two distributors said each of the companies give the distributors about 1,200 to 1,300 jars of water daily to sell, amounting to about 25,000 litres.
The nameless water plant was found closed during the day, and the staff said they extract water at night. It does not have any lab, chemist, and legal document.
When contacted, Kamrul, the director of the nameless plant, said, "I have applied for all the documents but yet to get them. That is why I am running the plant experimentally without any branding."
Habibur Rahman, assistant director of Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institute (BSTI) in Chittagong told The Daily Star that a water plant needs approval to set up deep tubewells from Wasa, a specific trade license from Chittagong City Corporation (CCC), an approval from BSTI, an approval from the Department of Environment (DoE), a certificate of premises' sanitation from the Directorate General of Health Services, and a health certificate of workers from the civil surgeon.
Sajal Kumar Roy of RM showed some documents claiming those to be approvals from BSTI, CCC, and Chittagong Wasa.
When asked whether he has approval from DoE, he said, a team from DoE visited his plant, and did not object to anything.
Md Shahed, manager of Drop, claimed that their business is legal and they have approvals from Wasa, CCC, BSTI, and DoE. He also said the owner of the company lives in the US.
About the allegation of the local people, he said some people are jealous of their business success, that is why they are complaining.
Md Golam Sarwar, chief revenue officer of Chittagong Wasa, said among the three water plants Drop and RM have licences from Wasa to install deep tubewells. He however could not ascertain whether the third one has a licence.
He said Wasa gave the two plants the licences because the agency currently does not supply water to that area. He also said Wasa now cannot do anything to stop the plants from extracting groundwater because the agency already gave them the licences.
About the sufferings of the residents of that area, he said, "If people of that area place complaints about the crisis we will let the higher authorities know and then they will decide whether to shut down the plants."
Director of DoE Zafar Alam said it is mandatory to obtain a clearance from DoE to operate a drinking water plant.
Local residents said they sent letters to Wasa and DoE complaining against the plants, the authorities also sent inspection teams, but those teams just visited the spots and went away without taking any action. Some also alleged that the inspection teams were bribed by the companies.
Zafar Alam acknowledged that an inspection was conducted in that area, but he did not know what action was taken.
When told about the allegation of the locals, he instantly phoned his subordinate to know what actually had happened and told The Daily Star that he will look into the matter and take necessary actions against the companies.
He said, "When we conduct any inspection and find faults, we take one of three steps: send a notice to the organisation, or fine the organisation, or we shut down that organisation."
However, he could not say why none of these had happened to any of the three companies.
Habibur Rahman of BSTI said none of the three water plants have the institute's approval.
They might have applied for it but none of them have been given the approval, he said.
Approvals for private water plants are given from Dhaka and it is strictly monitored under ISO/IEC guideline which is very difficult to maintain, so a very few water plants of Chittagong got that approval, he added.
Dipak Chakraborty, chief revenue officer of CCC, said, "We don't issue any trade licence for selling groundwater as it is a natural resource. The three plants were issued general trade licences."
"I've already directed the tax officer of Halishahar zone to look into the matter. And if the companies are found to be selling groundwater then we will cancel their trade licences," he added.
Dr Md Abu Tayab, civil surgeon of Chittagong, said none of the three companies applied to him for any certificate.
Some local residents, preferring anonymity, said the authorities of the three water plants provide free jars of water regularly to the ward councillor and other influential people of the area so that they do not take any action against the plants.
Admitting to getting free jars of water, Hasan Murad, councillor of ward 37, told The Daily Star, "The business owners provide water to the ward council office, but that doesn't mean I don't have the ability of purchasing water."
About the crisis of water in the area he said, "You can't blame the three water plants for the problem as there are many areas in Bangladesh where the same crisis exist without having any water plant."
He said, "Water is a natural resource you can't refrain anyone from procuring water from underground."
"Besides our area is near the sea, a vast source of water, so we will never face water crisis," he added.
When asked why he is not taking any initiative to mitigate the sufferings of the local people, he said, "So far I've got some allegations, but none of those is significant."
He said he believes those allegations are from personal rivalry and jealousy.
Those who are doing the business are not doing any crime, rather they are earning money, being self employed instead of being unemployed, he added.
If there was anything wrong then Wasa, DoE and other authorities would take actions, the councillor said.
Dr Mosharraf Hossain said the long term effect of wholesale groundwater extraction in the area will be more dangerous.
If water extraction continues at the current rate, groundwater of that area will soon become saline, he said.
As the groundwater level of that area gets water from the sea belt, when a vacant space is created underground by extraction of huge amount of water, it is filled by saline water from the sea, he explained adding, and then the water loses its drinkability.
Besides, trees with long roots will be affected and might die altogether, he said.
Mosharraf, who also conducted research on ground and surface water of CCC area, further said some areas might face land subsidence as a result of huge empty space underground created by water extraction.
The total area might eventually face subsidence, he added.