Education counters contamination in Bangladesh

Rainwater harvesting projects in Bangladesh, combined with education programmes, may be key to addressing the critical water supply issues facing the country. Freelance journalist Rachel King recently toured numerous projects with Mohammed Azahar Ali, executive director and founder of the non-governmental Society for People's Actions in Change and Equity (SPACE). In an exclusive for World Water, she reports on the progress being made.

Mohammed Azahar Ali, executive director and founder of SPACE, is passionate about rainwater harvesting (RWH) as the only viable method to address Bangladesh's drinking water crisis. The global problems of population growth, corruption and poverty are compounded, in Bangladesh, by the continually falling level of groundwater, rising sea levels and contamination; arsenic and iron poisoning being particularly widespread, along with salinity nearer coastal regions.

Traditionally the supply problems have been tackled with the construction of deep tube-wells (DTWs) and pond sand filters (PSFs), for example. Such initiatives tend to be high-cost, donor-dependent, technology-based and intended to serve groups or whole communities. Further, they are also not immune to contamination.

Ali revealed that 61 out of 64 districts within Bangladesh are affected by arsenic poisoning and 70% of DTWs cannot be used in some areas, representing about 40 million people. Contaminated DTWs are painted red and communities are advised not to use them but often the alternatives are limited or non-existent.

In July 2003, a visit from Murase Mokoto, director of Japanese NGO People for Rainwater, to introduce bamboo kits for rainwater collection, prompted discussion and funds were donated to five main NGOs working in this field. SPACE developed at this time, firstly, promoting the safety of rainwater for drinking, but also, acting as a consultancy to develop collection techniques through low-cost, low-technology methods.
Encouraging household-based options to foster ownership and responsibility for installations was also a goal of the organisation. The National Water and Sanitation Policy does provide government subsidies but only to community projects.

Micro-credit
SPACE recognised the importance of household-based options but funding was still an issue. By working with partner organisations throughout Bangladesh, micro-credit support schemes have been established locally to allow repayment of the initial borrowed sum in installments with little, or no, interest.
SPACE's work has three main threads to drive sustainability:
  • Ownership - as SPACE provides no subsidy, families have ownership through self-funding, supported by micro-credit if necessary.
  • Rapid cover - simple and low-cost options mean that people build and maintain their own facilities once they have the materials and guidance on design.
  • Operation and maintenance - each family takes responsibility for daily management, cleanliness and rationing of water over the dry months.
The standard RWHS is a 3000L cylindrical concrete tank attached to the side of an individual house with guttering, tap at the base and a side indicator of the content of water within the tank. The cost to install a tank is US$400. With a market value of US$1.5/L of bottled water, SPACE estimates the building costs can be recouped within the first year of use.
Thereafter a safe drinking water supply for the family would be effectively free and could also provide income, if surplus supplies are sold. Based on a 5-month dry season, a full 3000L tank would allow for 12L/d of safe drinking water per household if effectively rationed.

Partner NGOs
One of the major strengths of SPACE is its strong relationship with the relevant partner NGOs. In Morogong, the Community Development Centre (CDC) holds courtyard education sessions, hygiene programmes, school education initiatives, community meetings and discussions, particularly through religious leaders.

Various techniques are promoted to collect rainwater including tin roofing and polythene collection sheets spread over frames. A lot of resources go into educating families about tank maintenance and water conservation.

One villager who recently had a tank built said he was driven to provide safer water for his family by fear of dysentery from the tube-well water.
"I want the security of fresh water even during the dry months," he said. "I used to boil the pond water, but my family still got dysentery. Food is limited and, if my family gets dysentery, they can't absorb any food and also medical bills are high."
Gono Milon Kendro (GMK) is another partner NGO, working in Bagarat region. Women are targeted to attend meetings to promote rainwater; commonly, music and theatre are used to address the issue.

GMK understands the importance of working with religious leaders in promoting cleanliness and rainwater often in relation to holy scriptures to reinforce the message. GMK planned to build 100 RWH systems by the end of September 2005; by early July, 65 tanks had already been completed.

Satkira is an area particularly affected by arsenic poisoning. In the sub-district Colorua, 100% of tube-wells are affected and many people have visible signs of arsenicosis. These signs are changes in the skin with darkening hands, yellowing nails and peeling skin. The NGO Bangladesh Village Development Organisation (BVDO) uses posters and street clinics to help villagers recognise these changes and attribute them to the infected water supply.

In the village of Khetrabara, a family who had built a RWH system one-year previously had already repaid its micro-credit loan arranged by BVDO. The family was on a low income with only one wage earner, who worked as a rickshaw wallah, but now had a safe and free supply of drinking water.

Guava test
SPACE and its partner NGOs often hold impromptu street clinics on arsenic contamination. One of the most powerful demonstrations is to compare poisoned tube-well water with rainwater.

Guava leaf is rubbed into a glass of each while the assembled spectators observe the leaf reacting to iron in the poisoned tube-well water to give it a dense purple/black colour. The rainwater is only coloured slightly green from the chlorophyll in the leaf. This is a very effective and visual way of demonstrating the hidden contamination that exists in the groundwater.

Future plans for SPACE are similarly enterprising. Ali is keen to develop a Rainwater Research, Education and Promotion Centre in Bangladesh. One area of work would be to reduce the general consumption of water in the country (particularly in the construction industry), to address the continuing drop of groundwater levels.

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