The Bangladesh Government must do more to address the outstanding water needs of the capital, Dhaka, as experts warn that unless efforts are stepped up, things will worsen. The city requires 2.2 billion litres a day, but can only produce 1.9 to 2 billion, the city’s Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (WASA) reported.
“Stronger action is needed now. Government steps in addressing this problem to date have been inadequate,” Khairul Islam, country representative of NGO WaterAid in Bangladesh, told IRIN.
The official population of Dhaka is 12.8 million but unofficial estimates put the actual figure at closer to 15 million, including some 3.4 million living in slums. Another 300,000 to 400,000 people migrate to the city each year, which has witnessed a four-fold increase in its population in the last 25 years. According to the World Bank, the mega-city has the highest population growth in the world.
Much of Dhaka’s water problem centres on its over-dependence on ground water, and water specialists say the city needs to increase its usage of surface water sources like ponds, rivers and canals. The World Bank notes that Dhaka-WASA (DWASA) obtains most of its water from overexploited aquifers.
Power outages and a drop in the water table during the annual dry season from March to May mean DWASA is unable to extract enough water to meet demand. Shortages in early April were so severe in some parts of the city that many didn’t get water for days, while others complained that it was undrinkable. Scores of people protested.
Some 700 patients are currently being treated for diarrhoea a day against a normal average of 250 to 300 per day, the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Diseases and Research Bangladesh, reported on 23 April.
Feroze Ahmed, former professor at BUET and a water expert, agrees that the city’s now annual water woes are largely the result of over-dependency on ground water. “Initiatives to cut the dependency and [increase] use of surface water should have been taken much earlier,” he said.
However, the managing director of Dhaka WASA, Taqsem A Khan, says the government is well aware of the problem and has already taken a number of steps to address it, including the procurement of generators to extract ground water during power outages.
“This is a minor problem. In an unplanned mega-city like Dhaka, if four or five per cent people face problem to get water, it is a normal situation,” Khan said. Moreover, a long-term plan is now in place to reduce the city’s dependency on ground water, but it would take time, he noted.
“What WASA is doing is increasing production in a crisis situation,” said Mujibur Rahman, a water expert and professor at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), adding that the government’s strategy of increasing production as demand increases simply will not work.
Rains in mid-April improved the situation but the problem is unlikely to go away. “The source of water is not properly managed, which will put the city at risk of severe water shortage in the future,” Rahman warned, citing the heavy dependency on hundreds of tube wells throughout the city to extract more water.
To create a tube well, a pipe, usually 10cm to 20cm in diameter, is bored into the ground until the water table is reached. A strainer at the base prevents grit from being sucked up into the pipe by the pump placed at the top, which brings water to the surface and into a small reservoir or dam built to receive it. The depth of a tube well depends on the depth of the water table.
WASA runs 600 deep tube wells in the city to extract water, and there are also 2,000 private tube wells throughout the city. About 87 percent of Dhaka residents use ground water, mostly from deep tube wells, while the rest use treated surface water.
Each year this time, the recurring water crisis in Dhaka brings people out in protest. In 2010 troops had to guard water pumps in some areas.
Civil and environment rights groups like Citizens Rights Movement, the Green Club of Bangladesh and the Council for Implementation of Environment-Friendly and Liveable Dhaka have called for the resignation of the WASA chief.
The 2012 UN-Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water report released in April, notes that 70 percent of countries are falling behind the trends required to meet their access targets for drinking water.