Clean water and the socio-economic system

Published : 15 Nov 2022 07:58 PM

Results have emerged from a ground-breaking research which has helped to quantify vast ground water reservoirs across Bangladesh- that can assist in revolutionizing aspects within the agriculture paradigm and the food production matrix.

Commenting on this scenario S.A. Haque has pointed out that lack of freshwater, serious threats of pollution, river encroachment, flooding, and diversion or obstruction of jointly shared common river waters have been one of our growing concerns. However, after this new discovery such an evolving dimension needs to be treated with care and hope particularly because of our continuing tendency of over-drawal of groundwater for irrigation and industrial purposes during our dry season which many expected could eventually lead to Jakarta-like land subsidence.

Many Bangladeshi climatologists had been following for some time the ground-breaking research that was being carried out by six scientists- five of whom were of Bangladeshi origin. Recently, the lead researcher Mohammad Shamsudduha informed over the phone from London  that a month ago, “Science” , a renowned journal, had  published their research paper about a great water reservoir below Bangladesh that hardly runs dry. The more water is pumped out of the "Bengal Water Machine", as the researchers called it, the more water is pumped into it from the vertical and horizontal flow of freshwater from the surface and nearby lateral water sources. Such a mechanical dynamic is being considered by geoscientists as nature's very special gift to the people in the Bengal basin, a vast sediment-filled region upon which lies Bangladesh and a part of West Bengal. This has led Sham­sudduha, a Professor at the University College London, to inform The Daily Star that this evolving scenario would assist in "revolutionizing our farming further, as irrigation strategy could now be set scientifically." Apparently, according to these scientists the vast underground reservoir for freshwater was crafted slowly over thousands of years by the Ganges and the Brahmaputra that brought in tons of silt and sediment every year from as far away as the Himalayas to form the delta's spongy soil.

Professor Kazi Matin Uddin Ahmed, who is a hydro-geologist at the University of Dhaka has in this context observed that this process, named as “The Bengal Water Machine” has not only been boosting water yields in the winter, when there is practically no rain, but also helping lessen flooding during monsoon seasons. The scientists associated with this research have also observed that freshwater amounting to 75-90 cubic kilometres appears to have been captured and pumped back into the Water Machine from 1988-2018.

However, research has also revealed that such withdrawal-recharge ratio is not that encouraging and consistent among all regions of Bangladesh. The rice-producing north is precariously-placed. On the other hand, the west generally experiences less rainfall than the east and that reflects on the outcome. Groundwater depletion is taking place in the west but not so much in the eastern part of our country. In addition, Prof Anwar Zahid, a Director at the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) has pointed out that this Water Machine is also not working as effectively in the greater Dhaka region, big cities, and industrial areas.

 Such findings have led to environmentalists to stress on the need to use our available groundwater judiciously and cautiously.

In the meantime another climate analyst Rafiqul Islam has revealed how the coastal people of Bangladesh are suffering from various health problems caused by not only consuming partly saline water but also having to spend money on collecting that water too. According to a 2019 study, people consuming saline water also tend to suffer from various physical problems, including acidity, stomach problems, skin diseases, psychological problems, and hypertension. It has even been blamed for early marriages because salinity supposedly gradually changes girls’ skin color from light to gray.

It must be remembered that the coastal belt of Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable areas to climate change and it is hit hard regularly by cyclones, floods, and storm surges every year, destroying its freshwater sources. Consequently, the freshwater aquifer is also being affected by salinity due to rising sea levels.

It would be worthwhile to point out here that Ahmmed Zulfiqar Rahaman, hydrologist and climate change expert at Dhaka-based think-tank Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS), has observed that if the sea level rises by 50 centimeters by 2050, the surface salinity will reach Gopalganj and Jhalokati districts – 50 km inside the mainland from the coastal belt, accelerating drinking water crisis there.

However, it is heartening to know that an effort is underway through a rainwater harvesting plant from the Gender-Responsive Coastal Adaptation (GCA) Project, which is being implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), whereby women in some areas of the coast are now able to collect drinking water using the rainwater harvesting plant. This makes their lives easier.

It needs to be mentioned here that under the project, rainwater harvesting plants have been installed at about 13,300 households under 39 Union Parishads in Khulna and Satkhira.Shyamoli Boiragi, a beneficiary of Shaheber Abad village under Dakope Upazila, has said that women in her locality suffered a lot in collecting drinking water in the past because they had to walk one to three kilometers every day to collect water. Now under this system, because of rainwater harvesting plants women in some affected areas do not have to go a long distance to collect water. This permits them to also spend required time on more household work.

R. Loftus and M. Alexander who have been following carefully the different aspects of the impact that has resulted from the recent devastating flooding in Pakistan has been drawing attention to the recent meeting in Stockholm convened to mark the World Water Week. 

They have pointed out that for lots of the international attendees, many of whom were from the corporate world; the headlines regarding what had happened in Pakistan were a deadly reminder not only of the power and value of water, but also of the failings of the global system to manage it properly.

Consequently, there can hardly be a debate that the latest flooding catastrophes in different parts of the world, including Nigeria has been exacerbated by the climate crisis.

With COP27 being convened in November and the UN Water Conference taking place in March next year, business leaders, governments, and key stakeholders need to propel water issues to the top of their agenda and address them beyond the boardroom. 

Accordingly, it would be only reasonable to say that the important role businesses have to play in securing sustainable access to water has often been overlooked by them. Time has come for them to understand that having a safe, reliable, and resilient water supply is essential for most production processes and the health and wellbeing of employees.

In addition, it also makes sound financial sense- as investing in taps, toilets and hygiene behaviour change is good for business. Installing clean water and decent sanitation facilities helps employees stay healthy. This means less absenteeism, lower medical costs, improved morale, and higher productivity.

Directly and indirectly, RMG industrial units in different parts of the world, with vast numbers of women employees are realizing that such tangible benefits for the workforce and wider communities have positive impacts. Careful monitoring in some of these institutions have exposed that such facilities tend to increase, for example, how many jeans are sewn together, how much tea was picked, how much absenteeism fell and how much less the companies paid on medical bills on their employees.

It has also been observed by Loftus and Alexander in this regard that their research suggests that “for every US Dollar 1 invested in clean water, the apparel and leather sectors combined gained a US Dollar 1.32 return on investment and the tea sector projects a US Dollar 2.05 return. In this context, the analysts have said that to “highlight the stand-out examples – one of the ready-made garment (RMG) factories in Bangladesh showed a Return of Investment (ROI) of US Dollar 9 on every $1 invested in WASH, whilst in one of the Twinings’ tea estate plantations in India, there was a US Dollar 5 to US Dollar1 ROI during the pilot programme.

It is true that some businesses might be put off by the initial capital expenditure but they need to remember that though the profitable returns might take some time- still, low-cost solutions can often provide big results in the long-term.

It would also be appropriate for the corporate sectors to remember that their workforce has to have availability of clean water to meet the water related hygiene needs. Their board-level consideration must not forget that during the on-going pandemic circumstances have enhanced the need for hand washing as the first and most cost-effective defence against infection. Each workplace might be different, but it’s time for companies to put the wellbeing of their workforce at the heart of their business strategies and make water, sanitation and hygiene a priority. 

It is a wise and smart way to future-proof: for communities and for businesses to thrive. 

If businesses, civil society and relevant government authorities can rally together on this issue, it will also facilitate the achievement of sustainable development goals (SDGs) by 2030.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to 

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