Balupar is a village 20 minutes boat ride from Trimohony Bajar near Rampura Bridge. It is not far from the centre of Dhaka city. The village is surrounded by three canals and a river – all of which carry out the waste of the capital.
The villagers all appear to be suffering from polluted water. The boatman taking us to the village showed us his hands which were obviously affected by some form of skin disease. He told us about his childhood when fishing was one of the main professions here.
Now, there is a bad smell emanating from the water in the river and the canals all the time, and fish do not survive in them. There are two deep tube wells in the area which are inadequate to meet the demand in the village because the ground-water level has dropped.
Local people complain that the Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (WASA) does not supply them safe drinking water, so the people there have to arrange a supply themselves with great difficulty.
It is not just the boatman from that locality; 5 million people like him in Bangladesh do not have access to safe water, according to water.org.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says that Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries, and will be gravely affected by climate change. In fact, unavailability of fresh water will become one of the major concerns for people here.
The increasing salinity of water in the southern regions of the country is direct proof of climate change affecting the availability of fresh water. On top of that, arsenic in ground water is a threat to health too. According to a WHO report, 35 to 77 million people are living with the threat of arsenic.
The problem is, climate change is not the only factor limiting people's access to fresh water.
WASA extracts 70 percent of its water from the ground. This over extraction of ground water has resulted in a large drop in the ground-water level. To make matters worse, even rivers which used to be known as sources of fresh water are losing their credibility as "safe sources".
Among 724 rivers in Bangladesh, only 194 are not polluted. The other rivers are either badly polluted or have been encroached upon and filled in illegally by land grabbers.
The government has taken up Delta Plan-2100 to restore the navigability of rivers and canals. The project hopes to remove all the illegal occupied sections of rivers and canals, dredge the rivers and reduce our dependence on groundwater.
Again there is an international agreement with India over the sharing of the water of the Padma, Jamuna and other river, but the implementation of this leaves a lot to be desired.
Even within the country, there is unequal distribution of existing available fresh water.
For example, Bhakurta, a village of Savar which used to have extensive areas of wetland, or hoars as they are locally known, has been dried up to meet the demand of water in the capital. Not only has the village lost this source of water, they also do not get enough water from deep tube-wells there.
In the face of all these problems, Bangladesh will find it difficult to handle the coronavirus pandemic if and when it hits the country with full force. This emergency has exposed another aspect of the problem – the inequality of access to safe water based on economic class.
The best way to safeguard against the coronavirus is to wash one's hands thoroughly and frequently, but how can people living in slums be expected to do this when they barely have access to fresh water?
According to a report of the Bangladesh Institute of Planners, the wetland areas in Dhaka have reduced at an alarming rate in the last 20 years.
The Business Standard talked to Abu Saleh Khan, executive director of the Institute of Water Modelling, about the concern over the loss of sources of fresh water.
"Many of our rivers originate in India, and some in Myanmar. We are trying to work out agreements with both these countries about the distribution of water," said Khan.
"Until that happens, we are trying to work on the existing sources of fresh water – for example we will take care of the rivers by restoring their connectivity with other water bodies."
Khan talked about a project to dig canals and dredge rivers in 64 districts to preserve surface water.
"The rivers are gradually being rescued from land grabbers, and the project of dredging rivers is about to start. But now everything is on hold because of the coronavirus outbreak. When the situation improves, we will start working on the three main rivers," he added.