Six years back, during a work trip to Patharghata in Barguna district, we found time to visit Laldia Reserved Forest.
After the hours-long trip in the scorching sun on the bare, sandy beach in Laldia coast - just on the outskirts of the forest - we returned to Haringhata village and sat in a makeshift roadside restaurant.
As we wasted no time to grab the glass of water kept on the wooden table, the waiter stopped us. He said it was pond water, and asked us to wait for the filtered water that was reserved for tourists.
We, of course, did not hesitate to have the pond water, since locals used to drink it. It was perfectly tasteless, unlike the water from most tube wells in the country.
Across the coast, especially in the rural areas of the mid-and southwest, communities have been drinking pond water for a long time.
But these are not just any pond that they drink water from. The communities actually preserve a pond, especially for this purpose. They refrain from using these ponds for other things such as bathing, ablution and laundry. Almost in every case, there are other ponds nearby to serve those purposes.
There are other means of supplying drinking water though. During the monsoon, these communities rely heavily on rainwater harvesting. Also, there are private, and NGO-funded water filtration businesses that sell potable water year-round.
This dependence on surface and rainwater emanates from saline water intrusion into the groundwater aquifers.
Today is World Water Day, and this year's theme is "valuing water". It is worth looking at, on this occasion, how we value or do not value water across the country.
Too much, too little
Earlier, during a kayak trip from Jaflong to Ratargul, we found restaurants in Gowainghat bazar in Sylhet serving river water from the adjacent Gowain river.
The water that we took from the tube well in the Gowainghat Upazila Parisad, on the other hand, started changing colour after half an hour sitting on the kayak under the sun because of some dissolved minerals in it.
The Gowain river is not very well maintained though. We saw people bathing in it, and there is no way the boats plying on it were not polluting it with leached oil and other things, although the water of the river was not at all murky.
A little south, it is hard to find the practice of drinking surface water directly or filtered. Instead, towns and cities use the canals, rivers and other water bodies as the drainage system for sewer waste.
This utter negligence towards, or should we say the abuse of surface water happens mainly due to groundwater dependence. In the country, a total of 95% of the domestic and industrial water supplies and 70% of the irrigation supplies are drawn from groundwater.
The impact is already felt in villages and cities alike.
A report from past week says 4,000 shallow tube wells in Sunamganj are out of water during this dry season, forcing people to drink unsafe water from surface sources. Over-extraction of groundwater leads to lowering of groundwater table, hence, the debacle.
Ironically, this happened to Sunamganj sadar upazila, a place located on the edge of haors, that remain inundated for seven months and help recharge the aquifers.
Naturally, city areas with vanishing lakes and canals are suffering worse than this.
Around 78% of the water that Dhaka WASA supplies to its city dwellers comes from groundwater, with the remainder coming from surface water sources. The average groundwater level in Dhaka city was 11.3m below the surface in the 1970s. In Mirpur and Tejgaon area, it is now between 60 meters and 63 meters below.
Groundwater extraction is done with six hundred odd deep tube wells throughout the city, while 40–60 wells become inoperable each year due to receding aquifers. The groundwater table is now falling at a rate of two to three meters per year.
Just like some other cities in the world, a fall in the groundwater level is causing Dhaka to cave in. Reports confirm that the city is sinking nearly half an inch a year on average, putting the lives of its dwellers in danger. The same thing is happening to other parts of the country, albeit at a slower rate.
Although WASA has been using heavily polluted water from Buriganga and Shitalakhya, none of the city's four rivers' water is actually treatable. Instead of seriously attempting to stop adding pollutants to the rivers, we have been looking at increasingly distant surface sources to fetch water.
Padma (Jashaldia) Water Treatment Plant has already been constructed, and a similar project involving the Meghna river is underway.
But an Asian Development Bank report titled "Protecting the Meghna river: A sustainable water resource for Dhaka" warned that the water of the Meghna river could become too polluted from industrial, agricultural and municipal waste to be treated for drinking within the next five years.
During an earlier adventure boat trip in the Meghna river, we had found a hard time finding potable water in some of the char areas in Narsingdi district, reminding us of the classic line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink."
In Baluakandi, there were tube wells around, but those were marked with red, meaning the water was contaminated with arsenic. The community relies on an arsenic removal plant. Finally, some villagers helped us with water from their stock.
Arsenic contamination is another problem linked to excessive groundwater extraction and has been dubbed as the largest mass poisoning in human history. According to a WHO bulletin published in 2012, an estimated 35 to 77 million people in Bangladesh have been chronically exposed to arsenic-contaminated water.
The groundwater depletion and arsenic contamination are not all.
Toxic chemicals used in textile, ship-breaking, oil refinery, cosmetics, cleaning agent, and other industries have made their way into Dhaka's tap water that may expose the human body to health hazards, including cancer.
Referring to laboratory tests done by the Brown University, USA as part of the Environment and Social Development's (ESDO) "PFAS Bangladesh Situation Report 2020," a TBS report says, the chemicals include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), two widely-used chemicals in the industrial sector worldwide have been detected in both surface and tap water in Dhaka.
Even that is not the end of the story. People have found more "creative" ways to pollute groundwater.
While visiting the Meghna water project's Haria intake point in Sonargaon, Narayanganj, we were shocked to learn about the wastewater management system some of the local families installed. A man who we spoke with said they directly sent their untreated wastewater to the aquifers at a depth of 200 feet through a pipeline.
A few years earlier, I heard about this abhorrent method when a friend of mine said that he had successfully resisted installing such a system at his village in North Bengal. I couldn't imagine that it had already spread across the country.
As if arsenic and chemical poisoning was not enough, now we have wastewater contamination of groundwater to worry about! And I wonder how the government would be able to locate these "waste recharge points" even if it wanted to.
Being in a delta crisscrossed by hundreds of rivers and thousands of canals, we have a cultural tendency of not valuing water and wasting it. We took the abundance of water for granted. While the rainfall and the extent of flooding during the monsoon are increasing in the backdrop of planet-warming, there is a sharp contrast in the dry season, and the scenario is worsening due to unilateral withdrawal of water by upstream countries, mainly India, by constructing barrages and dams to meet their own irrigation and hydropower needs.
Besides, the recharge rate of deep aquifers is super-slow and thus can be considered non-renewable in the backdrop of over-extraction. When contamination is added, that leaves us to the post-groundwater future.
We revisited Patharghata this month. The water scarcity has not improved a bit. There we met Minara Begum in East Haritana village. She recently received a cyclone resilient house from an NGO, which has rainwater harvesting facilities installed. This system provides her safe drinking water during the monsoon months.
The crisis begins with the dry season. There is a small pond in front of Minara's house, that provides water for bathing and household usage. But it keeps drying up. By February, Minara had to refill the pond twice with water from a not-so-close canal with a pump that cost her thousands.
But as for the drinking water, she has to buy it from a local supplier who operates from the next village.
For Minara, and most people in the coastal communities, polluting the adjacent canal and the pond, or wasting the rainwater is simply not an option.