Rain to the rescue: responding to COVID-19 and water scarcity in coastal Bangladesh

5 min read
Women stand in line to collect water from Kashimari Sunnia Dhakhil Madrasa, Shyamnagar.

When the region of Shyamnagar was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and a prolonged dry season, WaterAid Bangladesh had to innovate to make sure there was enough water to go around.

Bordered by the Sundarbans to the west and the Bay of Bengal to the south, Shyamnagar is one of the most climate-vulnerable and water-scarce regions of Bangladesh.

The area regularly experiences droughts and devastating cyclones, which have not only destroyed vital infrastructure such as tube wells, but the subsequent tidal surges and rising sea levels mean that water sources are becoming increasingly saline and unsafe to drink.

As a result, the community is highly dependent on the rainy season as its main source of water: capturing rainwater in buckets and other containers, or from the few freshwater ponds in the area. But many of these ponds are shared between 20 and 30 households, privately-owned, or used to cultivate fish, which makes the water unsafe to drink. During seasonal droughts, the ponds often dry up, leaving behind small puddles of muddy and unhygienic water.

During seasonal drought, the limited number of freshwater ponds become completely dry.
During seasonal drought, the limited number of freshwater ponds completely dry up.

WaterAid Bangladesh has been working in Shyamnagar since 2016 to tackle these various challenges and provide sources of clean and affordable water through climate-resilient and inclusive infrastructure. With its partner Rupantar, an NGO based in Khulna, we have constructed several reverse osmosis plants, which purify or desalinate contaminated water using a semi-permeable membrane and high-pressure pumps. We have also installed pond-sand filters, where water is manually pumped through a sand filter unit for purification, as well as rainwater harvesting systems in community clinics and in 36 schools and madrasas.

The technologies are based on forecast models, estimates of the levels of water consumption, and thorough research into the best locations, helping to make sure that water is available all year round. We also work to ensure that the facilities will be available in the long-term by training women in business development and management skills, such as book-keeping, and in the operation and maintenance of the reverse osmosis plants.

But these technologies have their limitations. Pond-sand filters only work as long as the ponds hold enough water. And while reverse osmosis plants are effective, they are expensive. Low-income households who cannot afford to use them must ration the water they have collected, leaving them vulnerable to disease. Or they must use leftover pond or saline water, which is known to cause skin infections, diarrhoea and dysentery, particularly among women and children. What’s more, the reverse osmosis plants can only meet a fraction of the community’s water demands, even when running almost 24 hours a day during the dry season.

The limitations of these technologies and the vulnerabilities of the community to the effects of climate change were thrown into even sharper relief earlier this year. Not only was the community dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, but no rain fell for nine months from August 2020 to April 2021. Ponds dried up, groundwater reserves were over-extracted and social tensions bubbled to the surface, leading to arguments while people waited to collect water.

Sadia collects water from the pond sand filter in her village in Shyamnagar. The technology is only useful as long as the pond has water.
Sadia collects water from the pond sand filter in her village in Shyamnagar. The technology is only useful as long as the pond has water.
Image: WaterAid/DRIK/Habibul Haque

With community water sources running low, and no rain on the horizon, WaterAid Bangladesh jumped to action and came up with an innovative solution. We persuaded the local school management committee, the chairmen of the 12 unions of Shymanagar and local authorities to allow households to use the school rainwater harvesting systems we had installed between 2018 and 2020. On government orders, the schools had been closed since March 2020 to try and halt the spread of COVID-19, and so the systems were still full of water from the last rains of April to August 2020. With a combined capacity of 600,000 litres, there was enough water to go around.

The initiative started as a pilot in three schools in late April 2021. Households next to the schools were each able to collect 10 litres of water every other morning, and would register their names the day before to keep things in order. Volunteers selected by the school management committee kept track of progress. Once the other 33 schools in the area with rainwater harvesting systems saw the success of the scheme and the benefits to the local community, they soon joined the initiative, allowing neighbouring families to collect water. In total, an average of 5,000 households were able to collect water from the 36 schools per day, all while maintaining social distancing and health and safety measures in line with the prevention of COVID-19.

The scheme even helped the communities to withstand the affects of cyclone Yaas, which hit the area on 26 May 2021. In the hope of minimising the damage caused by the cyclone, we helped communities to capture some of the heavy rainfall for their own use while the school management committee, anticipating an imminent return to lessons, captured water to refill the schools’ rainwater harvesting facilities.

Although this initiative simply provided the community with enough water to tide it over until the rains finally came in May, it was encouraging to see how a simple act of collaboration could make the best use of the options available and address the community's dire needs for clean water. The scheme should serve as an example of how conventional approaches can be tweaked in an innovative way to address a growing and urgent crisis. As the effects of climate change worsen by the day, we can expect similar – if not worse – dry spells in the coming years. But in the future, through learning from this experience, we know what actions we can take to meet water demands in Shyamnagar.

Written by Ankon Ivan (Project Officer, Climate Resilience), Saief Manzoor-Al-Islam (Project Manager, Climate Resilience), and Hossain I. Adib (Director Programmes), WaterAid Bangladesh

Further reading

Top image: Women stand in line to collect water from Kashimari Sunnia Dhakhil Madrasa, Shyamnagar, as a volunteer notes down their names and ensures people maintain COVID-19 safety measures.