"Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink."
This lines from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge appears very relevant for around 20,000 families living in three unions – Munsiganj, Burigoalini and Atulia – adjacent to the Sundarbans in Shyamnagar upazila of Sathkhira.
Even though all the water bodies, including rivers, canals, ponds and shrimp enclosures, in these unions are filled with water, it is unsuitable for drinking because of high salinity and other impurities.
Hence, getting access to safe drinking water has become the main struggle of the people of these neighbourhoods like various other coastal regions.
Around 400 families live in the West Durgabati village in Burigoalini union. A resident of the village, Shanti Rani Mandal (42) goes out to collect drinking water for her five-member family every day between 10:30 am and 11:00 am.
Drinking water is available at a Pond Sand Filter (PSF) plant installed on the bank of a pond at one Ishwar Mandal's homestead in the Barapukut village of the neighbouring Atulia union. Such plants do not remove salinity but clean other impurities in water.
The PSF plant is over 2.5 kilometres away from Shanti's home. But the distance is not enough to describe how much toil she has to undergo every day to fetch the water.
She walks 2.5 kilometers with two empty pitchers in her hand. Then the walk stops. She now has to cross a wide canal to reach the pond of Ishwar Mandal. As there is no bridge over the canal, Shanti swims across it with the two empty vessels in hand. Half an hour after collecting water from the plant, she returns to the other side of the canal swimming with the two pitchers -- now filled with water.
She will now walk another 2.5 kilometres with one of the jars on her head and the other on the lap. After reaching home, she will have to cook for her family.
Manjusha Rani Mandal of Madia village – inhabited by 50 families – has to toil even harder as she has only one pitcher. In addition, she has to cross two canals and apart from walking 5 kilometres. As she has a single pitcher, she has to collect drinking water twice a day – in the morning morning and afternoon.
She, however, wants to go twice in the morning to collect water. "If I had a large container at my home, I could pour the water from the pitcher into it and then go out to fill the pitcher again. Walking 10 kilometres in a single go wouldn't be a problem. Then, I could do some more work including catching fish fry in the river in the afternoon," said Manjusha.
The stories of the women members of almost all families in the locality are similar to those of Shanti and Manjusha, since the work of collecting water in this area is mainly done by women.
Tubewells cannot be installed in 5 unions
In other coastal upazilas where water is saline, drinking water is provided by installing deep tubewells. The depth of these tube wells is 1,000 feet or more.
Even though there are 11,378 deep and shallow tubewells in Satkhira district, there is no scope for installing tubewells in most places of Shyamnagar upazila due to its soil structure and salinity.
According to the Shyamnagar office of the Department of Public Health Engineering, tubewells cannot be installed in 5 among 12 unions under the upazila. These unions are Shyamnagar, Bhurulia, Nurnagar, Ishwaripur and Burigoalini. The sand layer required for water extraction is not available in those five unions. Even if the layer is found at some place, the water lifted there has a high level of salinity.
In the other seven unions too, tubewells cannot be installed in all places.
Mostafizur Rahman, deputy assistant director of the Department of Public Health and Engineering in Shyamnagar, said, "In the last three years, about 1,500-2,000 tanks have been provided to retain rainwater. Pillars for installing tanks have also been distributed. "
This is basically what the government has done directly to provide potable water to the people of the region.
5,990 ponds, but no drinking water
According to the upazila fisheries office, Syamnagar upazila of the district has 5,990 ponds but the water in those ponds is saline and dirty.
Due to higher levels of salinity in water of all other water bodies, the locals use these ponds for bathing, washing clothes and other household activities.
After identifying some of the relatively low salinity ponds, various NGOs have installed pond sand filters to make the water suitable for drinking.
Mostafizur Rahman of the public health department said, "NGOs and private organisations as part of their business have set up 64 such salt filter plants in the upazila. Besides, there are around 1,000 PSF plants to filter pond water."
No such plant has been set up by the government.
However, a significant number of PSF plants have become inoperative due to increased salinity and a lack of maintenance, according to locals.
Locals in fear of death from stroke
Local people told The Business Standard that recently many people are dying of strokes, creating panic in the area.
Besides, people are suffering from various ailments including allergies and stomach aches.
The Arpangashia village in Burigoalini union is home to 5,000 people. Wasim Mridha, a resident of the village, died after a stroke in the first week of this month. In the previous 30 days, four other people had died of strokes in the village, locals said.
Swapan Gatidar, local union parishad member, said the number of deaths from strokes in the village over the last one year would be around 40.
Like this village, in the surrounding villages and other unions stroke-related deaths have marked a rise in recent times, he added.
Saline in drinking water is linked to strokes, said Upazila Health Officer Ajay Kumar Saha.
"There is a link between salt and hypertension. If the amount of salt intake is high, the blood pressure will increase. And that leads to stroke," he explained.
"Besides, the people of this region regularly suffer from various types of allergies and stomach ailments as a result of drinking salt water regularly and working in agriculture and shrimp enclosures containing salt water. Besides, 262 diarrhea patients were admitted to the Upazila Health Complex in January this year," added Ajay Saha.
The Upazila Health Complex, however, could not provide any exact information about the number of deaths from stroke as the data on how many people died due to any disease were not compiled.
Water resources expert Dr Ainun Nishat told TBS, "I have repeatedly visited Shyamnagar for various purposes. When I came back and talked about hypertension and stroke, people laughed at me.
"Drinking salty water will increase hypertension, for sure. If the water is not salt-free, nothing can be done with it."
The reverse osmosis plants being set up in various places by NGOs or private enterprises have a business aspect involved, he mentioned, adding, "People have to buy drinking water from there. Retaining rainwater is the best practice for those areas. The people of Syamnagar used to collect water in this way even a hundred years ago."
"If fresh water flow through the River Gorai can be ensured by constructing the Ganges Barrage, the salinity of water in the Khulna region will be reduced," he said.
Retrieval of crop land won't be easy
Local people and officials of the agriculture office said due to the widespread expansion of shrimp farming from 1990 to 2000, local farmers built shrimp enclosures in about half of the crop land of Shyamnagar upazila.
Even though the amount of cultivable agricultural land was 30,764 hectares, crops are currently cultivated in only 17,200 hectares. On the other hand, shrimp farming has increased from zero to 17,617 hectares.
Modasser Billah, sub-assistant agriculture officer of the upazila, said, "Even though the agricultural land has been converted into shrimp farms at a rapid rate, now everyone wants to return to agriculture after incurring losses in shrimp farming."
However, returning to paddy cultivation will not be easy, said Modasser.
"To produce one kilograme of paddy requires 3,000-4,000 litres of water. It is almost impossible to keep the canal water salt-free because of noncooperation from influential people. If water can be provided by digging big lakes, agricultural activities will increase again. Gradually, fresh water will also be available," he argued.
Insufficiency of vegetables and fruits
According to the Department of Agricultural Extension, vegetables are cultivated in only 250 hectares of land in the upazila. And there are fruit trees in about 500 hectares of land.
Modasser Billah said, "It is very inadequate to meet the nutritional needs of about 3.5 lakh people of the upazila. On the other hand, the residents of the area are being deprived of minerals as they drink water collected from filters installed to remove salinity."
Most families cannot afford to buy water
People do not require to pay for water from the PSF plants set up by various NGOs, but those plants cannot remove salt from water.
If they take water from the reverse osmosis plants, they have to pay 50 paisa per litre. But, apart from removing salinity, these plants remove all other minerals from water.
There is one more type of water supply system.
Some people buy salinity-free water from the plants and then sell it going door to door. Such sellers charge Tk25 per 30 litre of water.
Due to poverty, very few people are interested in buying water from them, locals said.
According to The World Bank Policy Research Working Paper styled "River Salinity and Climate Change: Evidence from Coastal Bangladesh", water from river sources in any of the coastal districts of Barguna, Jhalokati, Khulna and Patuakhali will become unsuitable for drinking by 2025 because the salinity level in this water will cross 1 ppt.
However, water in only 161-224 square kilometres of area in the 3,885-square kilometer Satkhira district will be suitable for drinking, it says.