(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Cyclone survivors lack safe drinking water

Hundreds of thousands of survivors from last week’s devastating cyclone in Bangladesh are reportedly now without access to safe drinking water.

Over 3,000 people are confirmed dead and millions more left homeless after the category four storm swept across the Bay of Bengal and struck the southwestern coast on 15 November, affecting 15 of the country’s 64 districts, 11 of them badly.

Abub Khan, a project manager for the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Forum, a Bangladeshi group working to ensure the basic needs of safe potable water in the country, said the NGO, along with the country’s Dapartment of Public Health Engineering and military relief agencies, were working hard to clean up the water supply, as well as provide water purification tablets.

“Tube wells are being decontaminated with bleaching powder. In the coastal areas the raising of tube well platforms above tidal water levels has started,” Khan told IRIN in Dhaka.

But the task of reaching so many people over such a large area is daunting.

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Pond sand filters

Some rural villages were using pond sand filters (PSF), a unique system whereby ordinary pond water is pumped up and filtered through sand and coconut coir, rendering it safe for drinking, but many survivors continued to drink from the ponds directly.

“They are either too exhausted to travel to the PSFs or tube wells, or they do not know that the pond water may kill them,” Mahtab Ali Akhand, a local school teacher in the village of Subidkhali in the worst affected district of Patuakhali in Barisal Division, not far from the sea, explained.

Meanwhile, residents of Char Lata, a river island of around 2,500 inhabitants, reported that only 100-200 of them had actually received water purification tablets from the army's mobile medical team to date.

In Char Khali, another river island in Patuakhali and where upwards of 300 people had died, all deep tube wells were now dysfunctional, with all but two shallow tube wells completely destroyed.

As of 20 November, over half of the area’s 4,000 inhabitants had yet to receive any water purification tablets.

Access problems in remote areas

Indeed, it is in the remote, inaccessible parts of Bangladesh’s worst cyclone-affected areas where the access problem was worse.

In Golachipa sub-district, survivors on the river islands of Char Lata, Char Agunmukha, Chalita Bunia, Char Anda, Char Bangla, Char Hair, and Char Mumtaz had no access to drinking water.


Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
A water pump stands above the flood-line in monsoon-hit Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Access to potable water is a key issue during the annual flood season that ensues

In neighbouring Dashmina sub-district, the river islands of Char Hadi, Char Borhan and Char Shahjalal faced similar circumstances, along with another two river islands in Baufal sub-district - Char Barret and Char Kardorma.

In the two severely affected sub-districts of Morrelganj and Sharonkhola in Bagherhat District, around a half a million people are now reportedly in need of clean drinking water.

“As a severe arsenic-prone area, people of Morrelganj and Sharonkhola have been dependant on pond and canal water for drinking and other daily use,” Arifur Rahman, a health officer of the Dhaka-based international NGO BRAC, maintained.

Tidal surges

However, tidal surges accompanying the cyclone had flooded the canals and ponds with sea water, rendering them unfit for drinking, he said.

Added to that is the amount of debris that now fills many of the ponds, resulting in many of the fish dying - and making the water unfit for drinking purposes.

“The survivors are struggling to manage even a drop of safe drinking water for their surviving children," Atiur Rahman Talukder, an imam at a local mosque at Tengratila in Morrelganj, maintained. “They no longer have access to pots or fires to boil the water they drink.”

Efforts by military and non-governmental organisations to supply water purification tablets and bottled water were continuing, but it appears that demand is much higher than earlier believed.

sa/ds/cb

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