Gourdasi Mondal, a 90-year-old widow has to depend on her daughter to fetch water for her use. On a recent afternoon the frail woman was walking with a plastic bucket in hand to a neighbour's house as her daughter was away. She hoped to get enough water from their submersible pump to cook her dinner as her own hand-pump hardly yields any.
The irony is that her village, Bhakurta, a wetland area about 18km north-west of Dhaka, sits on a vast underground water source, the Tetuljhora-Bhakurta aquifer, that is not supposed to get dry even after 30 to 40 years of water extraction according to Dhaka Wasa.
But the reality is different for the five-member Mondal family, who owns a hand-pump that can hardly extract a few drops of water after a lot of effort. They are not the only ones affected by the water crisis as the underground water level has dropped precariously.
For the around one lakh inhabitants of the union, life has changed for the worse since the Dhaka WASA began pumping water from their area to supply Mirpur, a densely populated area in Dhaka city.
The villagers blame a project of the Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority that began in 2019, for their plight. The project has since been pumping up underground water from their aquifer.
Anwar Hossain, chairman of Bhakurta union parishad, said, "The project is a deception. It has made our lives miserable."
Wasa planned big on Bhakurta aquifer
During a visit to the Bhakurta site two years ago, Dhaka Wasa Managing Director Taqsem A Khan told journalists that the aquifer would not deplete in the next 30-40 years.
Dhaka Wasa and the Institute of Water Management (IWM) discovered the Tetuljhora-Bhakurta aquifer in 2007.
The aquifer was found 250 metres deep. The IWM took two years to complete a feasibility study on developing a well over it.
At several press meets, Taqaem had said Dhaka Wasa was looking for surface water sources to reduce its dependence on groundwater.
"There is a huge pit of water under Bhakurta village. Why should we not utilise it as there will be no side effects?" Taqsem had told reporters two years ago.
He also said Dhaka Wasa planned to extract 60 percent water from the reservoir in the next 40 years.
The Tk583 crore project's feasibility study warned about the consequences and recommendations were made to address the potential water crisis across the affected area.
Dhaka Wasa did not make the study public and went on with the project without planning for any remedy for the affected people.
The project has 46 deep tube wells, iron removal plants, chlorination plant and surface reservoirs.
Dehydrating wetland lives
One is presented with a strange scene entering Bhakurta. Its ponds are dry. Shallow tubewells sunk for irrigation lie in the fields silently rusting, for the water level is beyond their reach and capacity.
Nasir Uddin, sub-assistant agriculture officer who was transferred to Dohar from Bhakurta on January 30 this year, recently said none of the seven shallow tube wells for irrigation across Bhakurta is in working condition.
"The ponds are also going dry."
Enamul Haque, a farmer, said there are at least 20 ponds across the Kandi-Bhakurta beel.
"The local farmers used to irrigate their farmlands using the pond water. However, they all have dried up now.
As groundwater level depletes, farming in the 1,529 hectares of arable land across Bhakurta has also become impossible.
Batashi Sarkar, a resident of the Hindu Bhakurta Para, said she had to fetch water from a nearby submersible pump.
"For other household chores, pond water is the last choice," she said.
But the ponds in Bhakurta, sitting geologically on a wetland, are also going dry.
"Two years ago, the hand pump with a 1.5-inch diameter pipe could extract litres of water from 40-metre deep. It was later replaced by a six-inch diameter pipe, but still the pump goes dry," said Khelaram Mandal, a brass worker from the village.
Bhakurta residents have to build houses on artificial plinths because the village sits on a wetland. They source the earth from neighbouring fields, turning those into ponds.
Therefore, fish farming, besides rearing cattle, had developed as an additional source of income. However, that is all in the past now.
In addition, the Kandi-Bhakurta beel – a vast wetland – is iconic. Until last year, local farmers cultivated rice in the beel area every season.
Monir Hossain, a local farmer, said now only submersible pumps can extract water from a depth of 100-150 feet.
"I earned extra money from fish farming. But the dry ponds are now watered by a submersible pump. My business is not economical now because of the electricity cost," he said.
Enamul, another farmer, said he used to cultivate about 800kg of rice each season on his 26-decimal land. Since last year, he stopped his farming because of the water crisis.
Mohammad Yunus's winter vegetables farming is failing because of the water crisis as well.
"My cauliflower buds have shrivelled up and I can't water them enough. The land is now only good for grass," he told The Business Standard.
Despite concerns, Wasa went ahead
Three years after finding the aquifer, Dhaka Wasa inked a deal with the South Korean company Hankuk Engineering Consultants for consultancy services. Finally, construction began on May 21, 2015.
Although the feasibility study was not made available to the public, IWM Executive Director Abu Saleh Khan recently told The Business Standard that the study had warned about the possible water crisis across Bhakurta due to the operation of the well field.
"To address the water crisis, an overhead water tank was supposed to be built by Dhaka Wasa," Saleh said.
However, Dhaka Wasa Managing Director Taqsem A Khan contradicted the IWM chief and said, "Water of at least four deep tube wells at the Bhakurta project will be supplied to the affected people if necessary."
"I do not know when the water supply connectivity would be installed. The Department of Public Health Engineering would implement the project, while Dhaka Wasa would finance it," Taqsem told The Business Standard.
The opening of the project was delayed three times and its full-fledged operation has not begun yet. Currently, it is supplying less than half the water of the project design, only 70 million litres of water per day instead of the planned 150 million litres.
Asked when would Wasa be able to run the project in full capacity, Taqsem said the current water crisis would worsen if the project went in full production. However, he did not consider the Bhakurta water well a failed project.
No Wasa water for Bhakurta
Citing that Bhakurta is out of Dhaka Wasa's distribution network, the Local Government Division on February 3 this year issued a letter to the public health engineering department, seeking opinion on developing a Bhakurta-based water distribution network by the department.
Dhaka Wasa also sought help from the Department of Public Health Engineering to develop a water distribution network at Bhakurta. However, the department has shunned the project, refusing to take the responsibility.
The department's Chief Engineer Md Saifur Rahman on February 16 told The Business Standard, "We said 'no' in reply. The well field has been developed by Dhaka Wasa. Hence, it should deal with the consequences."
Currently, the Tetuljhora-Bhakurta water well supplies water with a 13km pipeline to Mirpur Mazar Road, Ahmadnagar, Uttar and Dakkhin Bishil, Rupnagar, Monipur, Senpara, Mirpur sections 1, 2, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, Pallabi and Mirpur DOHS.
The Business Standard could not gain access to the project as it is a KPI (Key Point Installation) not accessible for outsiders. However, the team noticed a concrete canal that drains yellowish water out of the compound, which ends up into an adjacent depression.
Locals said the water is iron-contaminated.
"This is toxic and unusable water," said Muktar Hossain, who sells groceries in front of the water well.