Bangladesh delta: Towards securing water future

This week, the world converges in New York at the second UN Conference on water. The focus on water, through a second stand-alone global conference, comes after four decades since the first one in Mar del Plata (1977). The world over, the past decades has seen that water can no longer be regarded as a ‘given’, within or among the countries.

The prevalent notion of addressing water just by augmenting supply faces critical ‘limits to growth’ as even the wettest country or part(s) of a water-endowed country is under growing stress or uncertainty. Following the CoP (Glasgow, 2021), the UN acknowledged, “Unlike most other natural resources, it has proven extremely difficult to determine water’s ‘true’ value.” It is just fitting that, this week, the Global Commission on Economics of Water issued a seven-point Call for Action.

Exceptional global appreciation of water also comes as the global community approaches the mid-timeline of the Agenda 2030 for sustainable development. While the SDG6 aims at securing water all round, most people view six targets of the SDG6 as slightly additional to WASH (water and sanitation) agenda. Many development practitioners contend that, at the national or regional level, focus on the SDG6 and its inter-linkages with the relevant SDGs lacks the deserving attention or interest.

As much as the world approaches the mid-point of the SDGs, we also are at the mid-point of the UN Water Action Decade (2018-‘28). Both combined, the ambition and transformative actions remain missing. Given the complexities, shortage and disruptions around water also leads the global community to approach water in a wider lens: as water-climate nexus or water-food-energy nexus. The latest update on IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report underlines how climate change induced heat increase might severely impact on water availability worldwide.

Focus – Bangladesh
So, how might the evolving scenario impact Bangladesh? Or, how can Bangladesh act on securing her water-future?

Bangladesh’s development story significantly revolves around water – be it tackling riverbank erosion, floods or climate change. In the active-most, natural delta that Bangladesh remains, people continue to convert the challenges into opportunities through traditional practices and innovation that emerge from their everyday experiences. As it appears, people at the climate hotspots like the coasts and riverine estuaries, people face the limits to adapt to climate-induced water stress.

The realities in Bangladesh are often beyond the dominant perceptions. While Bangladesh is generally regarded as a water-endowed country with around 5,000 litres of per capita water availability, spatial distribution vary considerably. While five months (May through October) the country receives bucketful of rainfall, remaining seven months of the year, the country remains practically dry. Even the available water, for instance in south-west Bangladesh delta, are increasingly saline while other times they stay water-logged! On the other hand, erraticity in monsoon is increasingly disruptive, indeed for farming.

For ages, villages and communities across Bangladesh deemed water as a ‘given’. Ponds, tanks, wetlands (haors, beels) have been considered as common water wealth. They define people’s popular identity even, for instance, in terms of meeting their nutritional needs or artisanal livelihoods. As urbansiation and industrialisation pick up and around one percent arable land is lost every year to non-agricultural use, surface water is under growing stress. The vast majority of small and marginal farmers face difficulties in sourcing water which eventually increase cost of farming. Mining groundwater is increasingly fraught with risks and uncertainties.

Let’s zoom into the land and water -scapes in the urban areas. Nearly two-fifth of Bangladesh population is now estimated to live in urban areas – from Metros to smaller municipalities through modest growth centres across rural areas. By 2030, 48% of Bangladesh population is projected to be in urban areas, making half of Bangladesh population to be in towns and cities. And, by 2040, nearly two-third of Bangladesh population could be living in the urban areas. While that surely would speak of economic prosperity, the diverse economic activities could be much water-intensive.

Urbanization would present complexities and little options to toy with. At present, the easiest is to take recourse to groundwater for all urban water (including drinking water) while sewage water is dumped with ‘zero circularity’. The large cities combined, around five percent of municipal water is currently sourced from surface-water. While groundwater extraction far outpaces recharge during monsoon, in bigger Metros like Dhaka and Chattogram and even second tier cities like Cumilla or Sylhet, competing demand for land leads to filling up of ponds or traditional water bodies. That adds to shrinking space for water retention. Coupled with concretization, it all lead to rise in mean temperature by 2 to 3 degree celcius.

Ideally, the cities are to source water from surface water, meaning rivers or open water bodies. Yet, in case of Dhaka city with 16 to 20 million people, given the pollution of Buriganga river, as an alternate, the water authorities (WASA) moves to source water from apparently cleaner river sources at 50 to 70 km distance. That may lead to a double whammy – owing to cost of piped transportation, purification and consequent rise in water tariff: in reaching ‘piped water’ at household levels, sizable amount of water that will be treated for drinking purpose is also reached throughout the system for all other non-drinking purposes like toilets, gardening, household chore. That means, a substantial volume is water unnecessarily treated which adds to ‘cost’. We may benefit form re-thinking solutions that fit into transformed contexts.

So, with the existing and growing uncertainties, often accentuated by climatic disruptions, what could be the possible way forward for Bangladesh?

Creative interventions like ‘water use efficiency’ in urban households should be a growing imperative. Simpler course corrections like making faucets and toilet flushing water-intensive could be brought in by incentivizing investments in sanitaryware industry, for instance.

It is time that groundwater is considered as a precious resource. Going beyond, more as ‘a preserved lifeline’. While groundwater wealth across the country is weighed dynamically, based on spatial and seasonal scenario, pricing and policy options may be planned for municipal (urban), agrarian and industrial use. As has been seen elsewhere in the world, estimating and allocating ‘urban or municipal use’ on linear estimation, without taking into account the requirements in industry or farming, risks resentment from other competing sectors or industries in a country. This is intrinsically linked to valuing water, at all levels.

Graduating as a Middle Income Country (MIC), Bangladesh is on course for rapid industrialization. Of the 100 Economic Zones, around 20 are set to be operational. It can be an opportune time for Bangladesh to convert the spate of industrialization ‘water-proof’. Water efficiency and water-footprint will increasingly determine win-win for most business or entrepreneurs, even meeting sustainability considerations.

Consumer preferences or societal justice considerations may ask a business to account for its use of water even if it is operating within a domestic market. Therefore, as the demand side (markets and consumers) across the global supply chains move towards circularity, within an emerging Circular Economy Bangladesh business can position as an early-bird and firmly secure a winning value proposition.

Currently, manufacturing or non-municipal use has little accountability vis-à-vis water use and sourcing. Water use intensity can be embedded across spatial (urban) planning beyond limited rainwater harvesting. The gap can be turned otherwise using geo-spatial data, AI and IoT. Even digitized database could be developed linking factories or enterprises. And, responsible and circular use could be built in as part of overall cost-effectiveness and business-worthiness, beyond the sustainability narrative. This would result in an experience and knowledge that Bangladesh can share to inspire others.

Across cities and villages, from board rooms to factories, each of us need to re-think our choices and acts on water. Securing water, at every stage of living, is equally a societal and cultural responsibility; and must not be left to inactions or irresponsible choices made by others.

* Ambassador of Bangladesh to the Netherlands. The views expressed are his own

Source: Prothom alo

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