In 2020, Maksons Group got 30 acres of land in the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Shilpa Nagar – the country's largest industrial city in the south-eastern swathe. The group was supposed to invest around Tk1,000 crore there to build two spinning factories, but it hit the brakes over a looming water worry.
"We have adopted a go-slow policy for now. Factory construction will gain speed only after the authorities ensure us of uninterrupted water supply," Ferdous Kawser Masud, managing director of the group, told The Business Standard.
Mr Masud, however, was not supposed to sound so cautious on their investment plan as the authorities have been installing 50 deep tube wells – each as deep as 700 feet or equivalent to more than 64 storeys below the surface and will altogether pump 50 million litres of water per day.
But Mr Masud had another concern. Referring to a recent agitation by water scarcity-hit locals after an industry moved for groundwater extraction, he feared the tube wells may meet with the same protest.
The Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority (Beza) initially planned 154 million litres of water per day from River Halda for the industrial city. But Beza had to walk back on the decision in the face of increasing salinity and ecological issues of the river.
"We currently have no options left for the next couple of years except groundwater extraction," Abdullah Al Mahmud Faruk, project director of the shilpa nagar told TBS. He claimed they are allowed to lift 200 million litres of water per day, but Beza would not cross the 50 million litres ceiling so that the groundwater extraction does not compound water scarcity further to the locals.
He also talked about alternatives such as collecting water from a nearby hilly waterfall and rainwater harvesting.
However, environmentalists and water specialists say 50 million litres groundwater extraction per day still could be disastrous and a suicidal move to the ecology.
Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, said, "Groundwater extraction will definitely intensify the existing water crisis in Chattogram."
She commented that the groundwater extraction by the industrial city did not properly evaluate the environmental impacts. She urged the authorities to scrap the plan immediately.
According to the Bangladesh Water Development Board, Chattogram groundwater level has dropped by 20 metres in the past 40 years, forcing 50 lakh of the total 75 lakh population to face potable water scarcity.
"The aquifers in Chattogram are not similar to other parts of the country. The soil of Sitakunda and Mirsharai area is very rocky, and therefore, groundwater does not accumulate here," Anwar Zahid, a groundwater resources official at the Water Development Board, told TBS.
Already dehydrated households, thirsty industries
Chattogram lawmaker Mosharraf Hossain lives in Mirsharai. He and his family members had been drinking from the tube well at the residence for the last 20 years until recently it dried up. Like his household, as many as three lakh Mirsharai locals are now facing potable water crisis.
Mirsharai and adjacent Sitakunda, heavy industrial hubs of Chattogram, have around 400 industries and each of those also suffers with the fast depleting water level. Entrepreneurs say the increasing water crisis is causing concerns over their investments as the thirsty production lines are struggling.
Against this backdrop, a steel-maker allegedly installed a deep tube well in Mirsarai last year that met with public protest led by lawmaker Mosharraf Hossain.
The Mirsarai portion alone of the industrial city will consume around 500 million litres of water by 2031. Although several industries in the portion set to start production this year, water supply to them still remains uncertain.
According to the Public Health Engineering Department of Mirsarai, there are about 33,000 tube wells and shallow well pumps in the upazila, while around 40% of them exceed tolerable arsenic limits in water.
Currently, 184 deep tube wells are not getting water as the groundwater level has dropped more than 750 feet.
Investments face drawback
With around 30,000 acres of land, the country's largest industrial city Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Shilpa Nagar spans Chattogram's Mirsharai and Sitakunda, and Feni's Sonagazi upazila.
According to Beza, 6,500 acres of land have been allotted to 153 companies in Mirsarai part of the industrial city. Of these, 1,150 acres have been allotted for BEPZA Economic Zone, 500 acres for BGMEA Garments Village, 500 acres for SBG Economic Zone, and 500 acres for Bashundhara Group.
Despite Beza's promise of uninterrupted water supply by extracting groundwater for the next three years, entrepreneurs are holding back investments to the industrial city. Even after other utility services are ready, investors are reluctant to set up factories there.
Beza has recently written to three investors to receive their plots for apparel factories, but the investors are not showing interest in the call.
Rakibul Alam Chowdhury, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), said, "Water supply in the garments village area has not been ensured yet. The garment owners would start building factories after being assured of water supply."
Beza sources said that there is a 20-year master plan for water supply to the industrial city. According to the plan, 100 million litres of water is required per day in the Mirsarai portion of the industrial city. In addition to groundwater, Beza would pump in water from Feni and Meghna rivers.
Sumon Roy, executive engineer of the Department of Public Health Engineering, Chattogram, said if water from the River Matamuhuri can be supplied to the factories, the pressure on groundwater will be reduced.
On top of that, environmentalists advocated for use of seawater after desalination – which is considered to be the most expensive approach for freshwater.