When water causes poverty

Dhaka,  Sun,  24 September 2017
Published : 15 Aug 2017, 20:44:12

When water causes poverty

Bangladeshis have learnt to adapt to crises. In the face of increased salinity, some villagers in Satkhira are benefitting from a private sector water market while others are going for rain water harvesting to meet acute shortage of pure drinking water, writes Abdul Bayes
The jeep with five passengers including this writer was rushing to reach a village in southern part of Bangladesh lying in an ecologically backward region. The village is called Madra under Tala upazila of Satkhira district, widely known to be susceptible to severe salinity and arsenic contamination. About 300,000 people are under arsenic threats. More importantly, the region is adversely affected by climatic change. All these are reported to have taken heavy toll on lives and livelihoods of the rural population who eke out a living from fishing and crop cultivation. By and large, agriculture is the major source of livelihoods. This is the season for fish cultivation after which Boro paddy will be cultivated with thousands of shallow tube-wells supplying ground water. It has been alleged that ground water extraction by tube-wells has been one of the main causes of arsenic contamination in that region. It is to be noted that Satkhira, for that matter Tala upazila, has one of the highest incidence of income poverty. To be specific, roughly one-third of the population lives below the higher level of poverty compared to just one-fifths in Bangladesh. This can be adduced mostly to water-related woes affecting both production of crops and health of the population.

The five travelling to Tala were Muhammad Musa (Executive Director, BRAC), Akramul Islam, KAM Morshed, Mazhar and the writer. We were looking for a firsthand impression of the private sector-led water market emerging in that part of the country. Water market is possibly not new as it has been with irrigation water over time but for drinking water in a rural setting like Madri village, it warrants an analysis from research point of view. We were also to take a look at rain water harvesting undertaken by the villagers.

From Monirampur to Keshabpur (Jessore), the jeep ran on the paved road piercing through the hearts of villages. On both sides, we observed fish ponds (macher gher) filled to the brim after heavy rainfall. The ponds are reportedly owned by both politically and economically powerful persons. They do not want the excess water to be out through proper drainage system. People's perception is that these 'fish-kulaks' keep the water logged to reap home fat profits from fish cultivation at the cost of miseries of common people. However, water-logging inundated households nearby and forced them to pave ways to the paved road for a short shelter. There they built huts made of bamboos and covered with torn polythene sheets. On an average, a household of four shares 50 sq. metres and there are about 200 households living under the open sky with frequent drizzling and at times heavy rain. Of course, some of them built huts to get relief only. However, it might have happened that the 'push' factor pulled many of them down the poverty line as seasonal shocks - man or nature-made -lead one-third of the population in Bangladesh move up and down the poverty line.  This case can be construed as water-poverty as mismanagement of water inundated households putting them in a perilous condition. However, with gloom cast on the horizon, the good news is that the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) has supplied latrines to these poor families.

Leaving the ordeals behind, we soon arrived at the destination and dropped in an enterprise named 'Paradise Pure Drinking Water'. Owned by a school teacher, Rajib Sarkar (35), the enterprise was established to purify water with an investment of Tk 6,00,000. Rajib got Tk 2,00,000 as finance in addition to technical support from BRAC. As we were told, there are 10-15 enterprises of this kind in the vicinity of the village, thus, indicating to the emergence of a private sector-led market for drinking water. The enterprise purifies 6,000 litres of saline water every day with modern equipment displayed before us. The monthly sales hover around Tk  30-40 thousand, and consumers pay Tk 20 for two litres required everyday just to have drinking water. Roughly 10-20 per cent of income of the households are being spent on pure water for the whole day.

"Why should not they pay for pure water" asked Kartik Master who participated in our discussions. Kartik's mother had illness resulting from contaminated drinking water that cost thousands of taka in treatment including treatment in Kolkata. When all went in vain, he found his mother getting well after she started drinking purified water. "A stitch in time saves nine", he said, arguing that Tk 20 per day may sound sour today but if pitted against the consequent treatment costs, the amount is nothing. While the discussion was going on, we noticed signs of anxiety in Muhammad Musa's face. He was upset by the news that till now, one-fifth of the households cannot afford to buy pure drinking water.

In a nearby village, rain water is being harvested with support from the Directorate of Public Health which supplied a subsidised 3,000 litre tank to preserve rain water. Residents of the village use this water just for drinking purposes during the crisis of drinking water. It needs to be mentioned here that both the methods of supplying water have reduced water-borne diseases and water-poverty to a great extent.

We were waiting to take a flight to Dhaka from Jessore, albeit relaxed and reaffirmed. A phone call from Dhaka to Muhammad Musa made us wary. The news is that Bangladesh might soon face an unprecedented flood, beating 1988 flood devastations. The signs and significance seem to be ominous. A flood of that magnitude could lead to more water-poverty thus throwing millions to the poverty line. But given the past history of resilience and hard work, we can only say that Bangladesh has learnt to develop in the face of devastations as reflected by its graduation from a basket case to a development puzzle.

The writer is a former Professor  of Economics at Jahanirnagar University.

Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
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