Bangladesh farmers battle water woes
By Naimul Haq
CHAPAINAWABGANJ, Bangladesh - Fahima Begum rises each morning at dawn and walks two kilometers to a small pond, the nearest source of fresh water. On her way she passes the rusty old hand-pumped tube well that used to supply water to her village in Bangladesh's arid Barind region until the water table here dropped out of reach.
Using a ragtag array of pots, she carries back as much as her frail body will allow, knowing that it will have to last her family all day.
Susma Sen, also a resident of the Hamidpur village, in Chapainawabganj district, about 330 kilometers from the capital,
Dhaka, echoed her neighbor's lamentation, adding that she rations out her family's water use for a few days to avoid making the grueling trek again the next morning.
"Finding fresh water here is like finding gold," said 52-year-old Johra Khatun, who lives in the nearby village of Gopalpur. These villagers say every drop of water they collect is precious, and used sparingly.
This northwestern region is the most water scarce part of Bangladesh, a country of 160 million people that is bracing for severe water shortages. Already, global warming has dealt a harsh blow to farming communities. Extremely high temperatures, inadequate rainfall and prolonged drought have become a matter of routine in the 7,500-square-kilometer Barind region.
Average rainfall has dropped to less than 1,200 millimeters, against the national average annual rainfall of 2,300 mm, putting undue stress on a groundwater table that is accustomed to being replenished by heavy monsoon rains.
According to unpublished data disclosed to IPS, excessive extraction of groundwater by 8,000 electric irrigation water pumps in the past three decades has contributed to alarming levels of water scarcity in Barind, which produces 60% of the country's most important crop, rice.
The two rivers that once supported life and livelihoods here - the Jamuna, which flows from India where it is known as the Brahmaputra, and the Mahananda - have dwindled almost to a trickle. Massive dams in India that siphon off huge amounts of water during the dry season have led to heavy siltation of these cross-border rivers. In Bangladesh, extreme silt deposits have resulted in island-like formations across rivers that locals call "chars".
Sardar Mohammad Shah-Newaz, director of the Institute of Water Modeling, a leading research body operating under the aegis of the ministry of water resources, told IPS, "Our latest studies indicate that... if the water levels of the two rivers drop any lower, the groundwater level will further decline, thus forcing the region into an acute water crisis."
Nachole, a sub-district of Chapainawabganj, is one of the worst affected parts of the region, experiencing average annual rainfall of less than 1,000 mm in 2011 and 2012.
With a population of roughly 120,000 people, many of whom earn between US$38 and $50 a month, Nachole is teetering on the brink of disaster: about one-third of the 17,500 families who live here have no access to safe, clean drinking water.
Walking through the villages of Nachole, one is confronted with the dismal sight of dried out ponds, barren farmland, and withering crops. Though such scenes have become almost mundane, some residents still recall a time when these lands were lush and yielded plenty of food for the region's 50,000 farmers.
Fifty-five-year-old Laila Banu told IPS, "When I came here 27 years ago there were plenty of freshwater ponds that served as our main source of drinking and cooking water... as time passed, they all disappeared."
The government responded by constructing some 5,000 tube wells here, drilling 60 meters or more into the earth to reach fresh water, compared to the average 10 to 15 meter-deep wells in the rest of the country.
"About 35% of those wells are now out of order," Sakhawat Hossain, superintendent engineer of the department of public health and engineering (DPHE), told IPS. "This significantly reduces access to safe drinking water in the area, particularly in the summer months."
Now, organizations such as the Barind Multipurpose Development Authority (BMDA), responsible for installing hundreds of tube wells in the region, are realizing that long-term agricultural productivity cannot be achieved by pumping more water out of the earth but by restoring the delicate ecosystems that act as natural conservation and security systems.
"Our aim is to increase agriculture productivity by promoting biodiversity or encouraging farmers to use alternative crops," BMDA project director Dr Abul Kasem told IPS.
BMDA chairman Mohammad Nurul Islam told IPS that in order to "overcome the challenges of... climate change, we strongly encourage farmers to grow crops that require less water, like wheat, maize, pulses, tomatoes, potatoes and other cereals."
He is optimistic about initiatives like the government's policy on biodiversity that promotes "crop diversification, which maximizes use of farmland and increases farmers' profit margins."
Instead of relying on income from a single yield every season, as is the case with crops like rice, farmers with an array of crops can secure an income up to three times a year, he added. This amounts to roughly $300 more every year for smallholders.
Farmer Rafiq Hasan, who owns two hectares of land in the Naogaon district, and others are starting to reap the benefits of this method, though he said there are "more risks involved", particularly with crops like potatoes that require cold storage facilities to preserve the surplus.
Ranjan Kumar Das, a small-scale farmer in Chapainawabganj who now plants chickpeas and maize alongside his rice, says he has noticed enhanced soil fertility as a result of crop rotation.
The national biodiversity policy also called for the construction of canals that crisscross this vast landscape, alongside of which trees have been planted in the hopes that their complex root systems will improve the soil's water retention capacity and ward off desertification.