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How rainwater harvesting has become a lifesaver in Bangladesh

‘There was a high miscarriage rate among women in coastal areas compared to other districts.’

This is a wide shot showing a boatman as they hurry across a river in Khulna District as ominous rain clouds loom in the sky. Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/TNH
A boatman hurries across a river in western Khulna district as ominous rain clouds loom overhead. In 2023, flash floods affected more than one million people and displaced over 200,000 in Bangladesh.

In coastal Bangladesh, the changing climate has brought about a crisis for communities that have relied upon ponds and bore wells for their drinking water for generations: Rising sea levels mean those traditional sources of survival are now contaminated with salt.

The imperfect alternative is drinking pond water – frequently unpurified. This can lead to chronic diarrhoea and other waterborne diseases, made worse if people then drink saline water. Women and children often bear a double burden, suffering particularly serious health effects while also carrying the responsibility of providing water for their families. 

Visual journalist Zakir Hossain Chowdhury travelled to Bangladesh’s western border districts of Satkhira and Khulna, where thousands of residents have found ways to preserve rainwater rather than let it be lost to run-off. While at least 30 million coastal residents have no access to safe drinking water, rainwater harvesting and a new government push to desalinate groundwater are providing a beacon of hope. 

"There was a high miscarriage rate among women in coastal areas compared to other districts,” but that rate has come down since communities began harvesting rainwater, Shanjana Parvin, a doctor at the Friendship Hospital in Satkhira district, told Chowdhury.

Bangladesh averages 2,200 millimetres of rainfall annually – one of the highest amounts in the world. Efforts to capture this sustainable and affordable source of fresh water are transforming lives, while last year the Bangladeshi government eliminated a tax on imported parts needed to run solar-powered water desalination plants, in the hope of lowering costs. 

The government hopes that ramping up solar-powered desalination will stem the increasing salinity of underground water due to natural disasters like cyclones, rising sea levels, declines in groundwater levels, and changes in upstream river discharge. It announced plans last year to give up to 50,000 coastal communities access to clean water by building 1,500 new desalination plants.

Those affected aren’t waiting around for others to find solutions. They have embraced rainwater harvesting to build their own resilience in the face of the climate crisis.

The simplest method involves using roofs to redirect the rainwater into a tank or cistern. It can then be used in irrigation to sustain crops and plant life. In general, rainwater is also considered clean enough to drink without the need for additional treatment.

Experts say rainwater harvesting can help communities in both flood- and drought-prone areas by providing access to clean water during emergencies, ensuring water security during dry periods, and reducing run-off that can worsen flooding and flood risks.

Chowdhury’s photos show how rainwater harvesting is empowering coastal communities to sustainably safeguard their health, while also fostering livelihood diversification through agriculture and gardening.

Filling vessels at Sweet Water Pond

A group of women holding metal water jugs stand and kneel on concrete steps as they wait or fill up their containers.
Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/TNH

In the Koyra area of Khulna district, women dip jugs into Sweet Water Pond, which has been created by rainwater harvesting. Most of the women have to walk around four kilometres to collect drinking water, and sometimes they make the trip twice a day.

Despite being fed by harvested rainwater, Fresh Water Pond can be contaminated because it is also used for watering animals, washing clothing, and bathing. Drinking the water may cause adverse health effects, such as chronic diarrhoea. 

‘Now I can take care of my two children’

A young woman kneels in front of a large turqoise water tak as she collects water.
Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/TNH

Rabeya Akter, 24, collects rainwater from a water tank in the Shyamnagar area of Satkhira district. "Now I can take care of my two children and their education properly,” Akter said, referring to the time she saves not having to walk long distances to other water sources. 

The tank Akter uses is part of an NGO project to use rainwater harvesting to improve access to clean water for vulnerable communities in coastal Bangladesh.

“Carrying water from long distances every day is much harder, even though I was drinking little water, thinking about my family," Akter said.

Because they require basic materials and rely on simple structures – roofs and tanks – rainwater harvesting systems are easy to install and relatively inexpensive.

Women find water close to home

A woman collects rainwater from a white tarp.
Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/TNH

A woman collects water from the rain using a plastic sheet in her yard at Koyra in Khulna district near Sundarban.

Traditionally, women in Bangladesh are responsible for collecting water for their families. Rainwater harvesting allows them to collect clean water closer to home, reducing the time and effort spent fetching water from distant and potentially contaminated sources.

Being able to collect drinking water close to their homes can also help protect women from gender-based violence. Studies have found travelling long distances – especially to secluded areas – to fetch water often leaves women susceptible to abuse. 

‘People aren't capable of paying for it’

This is a medium shot of Robin Chandra Das, from the NGO Friendship. He is standing in the desalination plant he monitors in Shymanagar in Satkhira District. You can see equipment in the background. He wears a grey button up shirt.
Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/TNH

Robin Chandra Das, from the Bangladesh-based international NGO Friendship, stands in the desalination plant he monitors in Shymanagar in Satkhira district.

During the hot summer season when there is little to no rainwater and the ponds are dry, desalination efforts – which remove the salt from the existing salty groundwater – can be the only good source of water.

Friendship has already installed six desalination plants. “Our six water treatment plants in the coastal areas deliver fresh drinking water to more than 80,000 people in the coastal area of Bangladesh,” Das said. 

Desalinated water from Friendship’s plants costs 10 Bangladesh taka (about $0.10) for 20 litres, but this isn’t always the case. “Where salinity is high, it costs so much to desalinate that people aren't capable of paying for it," Das explained.

The many uses of rainwater

A woman walks through a vegetable patch.
Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/TNH

Rainwater isn’t just needed for drinking.

It also helps maintain agricultural productivity, promotes kitchen gardening, and provides a source of income for rural communities. It can be used for non-potable needs like washing clothes, cleaning, and sanitation, and reduces the strain on municipal water supplies, especially during peak demand periods.

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