The looming water crisis | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 16, 2009 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, May 16, 2009

The looming water crisis

Digging deeper to his dismay? Photo: Azizur Rahim Peu/ Drik News

WATER is fundamental to the survival of human beings but, every summer, Bangladesh discovers that life with water shortages is increasingly becoming commonplace. This year it has become the country's most serious crisis, more than dal-bhat. From being a necessity, water has now become a luxury.
With pipes running dry, our urban centres are turning to tankers provided by Wasa, which cannot cope with the demand. Villagers continue their old practice of digging deeper and deeper for decreasing groundwater. The tragedy is that Bangladesh has enough water for its 150 million people, but has not made enough effort to make it available to them.
The reasons for the water crisis are the rate at which its population is increasing and the myopic planning, muddled policies and misguided perceptions. As towns sprouted, no thought was given to the emerging mismatch between demand and supply. Because of this Dhaka, situated on the river Buriganga, has to think of piping in water from the river Jamuna.
Ground water was pushed as a solution, while storage and distribution projects were neglected. Industrialisation saw no checks on pollution of water resources. Industries are not obliged to re-use water, and continue to be the biggest polluters along with pesticide and fertiliser-ridden discharge from fields.
As Bangladesh became urbanised, traditional systems of managing water resources were thrown by the wayside. Today, the very development, growth and security it sought to build while neglecting the ecological side effects are under threat. Most shockingly, even as the country continues to face severe crisis of water in both agriculture and household use, no projects for utilisation of water from river basins have been undertaken till now.
Bangladesh has an annual surface flow of about 1073 million acre feet (MAF), of which about 870 MAF are received from India as inflow and 203 MAF as rainfall. This is enough to cover the entire country to a depth of 9.14m. Another statistics says that about 132 MAF of rainfall are lost in evaporation and the rest flows to the Bay of Bengal. This underscores the fact that investment in storage and distribution needs a boost to halt ground water depletion.
There is also the need for technology to increase efficiency. It is time Bangladesh shifted from the concept of yield per hectare to yield per cubic metre of water. While water- scarce regions all over the world adopt micro- and drip irrigation, micro irrigation accounts for zero percent in Bangladesh as against 49 percent in Israel. Farmers in Meghalaya have devised a drip irrigation method by stringing together split bamboo sticks that carry water over hundreds of metres to betel and black pepper orchards.
At the macro level, the government needs to redefine the need-availability paradigm. Demand management now means "redesigning and restructuring demand" to suit need and availability. We have to think about which type of crops we should grow where after assessing the availability of water.
While industrialists here are rich enough to support a several crore taka bottled water industry and consumers can also afford the high price, no effort either by the government or private entrepreneurs has been made so far to conserve surface water. Uttara lake in Dhaka, a water body almost 5 km long and 200 m wide, could have been a pure surface water source along with Gulshan-Banani-Baridhara lake. The enormity of the crisis dictates urgency -- in thought and action.
The water crisis is the single biggest crisis facing Bangladesh today, and the stress is showing. Reports on TV and in newspapers reveal the horrendous water problem in Dhaka city. It is most disquieting to see that some areas are going without water supply for days. In such an appalling situation, Dhaka Wasa has the capacity of supplying 194 crore litres per day against the demand for 205 crore litres, as revealed by their sources. It is most unlikely that with just a shortfall of 11 crore litres there could be such a crisis.
Dhaka's ground water aquifers were emptied so drastically that harmful deposits and toxic substances rushed in, posing threat to human health. These aquifers take decades to recharge, while population growth is exponential. With pipes drying up, the search for water is frenzied. With Buriganga water polluted beyond redemption, Dhaka Wasa can now supply only one crore thirty lakh litres with 45 pumps now being used to lift water from underground. With more tankers muscling their way into Dhaka city, the situation is set to deteriorate.
The situation is no better in rural Bangladesh. Despite the spread of bore wells, the number of "no source" villages has burgeoned because of contamination, drying up of sources and system breakdowns. Water van is the most visible evidence of the country's thirst even in villages. Rural Bangladesh, yet to be acquainted with water-tap, is worse off as groundwater levels have plunged in almost all the districts.
The demand for water -- for drinking, irrigating fields, industries -- is skyrocketing. Unhappily, instead of focusing on long-term solutions, every government has found it easier to allow exploitation of groundwater. True, the country's food security was propelled by the "tubewell revolution," but it led to long-term damage as the pump culture has wrought havoc on the hydrological cycle.
How did we get here? Since the 1990s, the governments have focused only on demand --getting pipe lines to more and more places -- but the crux of the problem, supply, has not been addressed. Most cities and towns are not based on river-banks, and rapid pace of urbanisation has led to the drying up of traditional water sources like tanks and lakes. Dependence increases as surface water sources are sullied by sewage and industrial pollution. The past governments were largely to blame for their failure to assess the gravity of the situation and curb siphoning of groundwater. And the present Al-led government that came to power with some firm pledges must not indulge in lip-service but get into action.
In view of the lingering crisis that seems to be increasing by the day, the government needs to introduce measure like drip- and micro irrigation systems, ensure roof-water harvesting in cities and towns, arrest leakage from pipeline networks -- which accounts for huge wastage -- and must design a demand to match the availability of water. This essentially means that policies should be tailored to curtail demand in agriculture and domestic sectors.
Md. Asadullah Khan is a former teacher of physics and Controller of Examinations, BUET. e-mail :

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