Water Crisis in Bangladesh
Arsenic in the water: A sneak peak from the village of Joymoni through the eyes of a local mother.
Bangladesh has a lot of two things: water and people.
The people? Bright – in dress, demeanor, and intellect. Warm – hospitality reigns in oppressive humidity. Resilient – finding ways to help one another survive in treacherous geography and vulnerability.
The water? Often deadly. When it is not flooding away whole towns and livelihoods, it is contaminated with pathogens, chemicals, and arsenic. Still, it is the center of life in the small town of Joymoni in the southern Mongla region.
Getting to Joymoni (once you are in Dhaka) is a twenty minute flight (or a twelve hour drive), a 1.5 hour van ride, a ten minute walk, a ferry ride, a half-hour ride in a tuk-tuk, and another fifteen minute walk on narrow dirt paths stretching across flooded rice fields and fish ponds.
Joymoni is full of families whose lives are built on water – water that is both deadly and life-giving. The houses are built on levees and stilts that slowly erode with the ebb and flow of the tidal waterways near the Bay of Bengal. The levees connect the houses, but they also hold in small ponds used for fish farming. The ponds function like small plots of farmland that you might find in other areas. The men support their families with income and food from their fish ponds and the wild fish in the delta and the women cook rice from the ponds. But the same water surges in frequent floods and cyclones, destroying homes and lives. Many people here tell me their fears of next year as the sea levels continue rising. The ponds also serve as a main source of water. Even in the calm years when the water forms no visible attack, it silently poisons those who drink it because of its arsenic, iron, and saline content. Household latrines empty straight into the ponds. In the small and quiet village of Joymoni, a vicious war for life is raging.
Namja’s eyes are strong and full of life and young energy, making her face stand out in the sea of faces as I am introduced to the smiles and bright clothes and weathered faces that make up Joymoni village. Namja, almost 20 years old now, lives in Joymoni with her family. Her father and husband are fisherman. Namja’s life hangs in a strange balance. When asked about her life in Joymoni, she answers,
“Life is not so bad here in Joymoni. We are used to this life. My family is here… we know everyone and they know me. Water is very difficult in Joymoni. During the rainy season we drink water from the ponds because they are full of freshwater from the rains, but during the dry season the pond water is too salty to drink so we buy bottles from a truck nearby, but I think even then the water is from a pond somewhere and isn’t safe to drink. But we drink it anyways because it is all we have to drink. There are no other options here. Many people are getting diseases because of the water we are taking. For me, if my husband is sick I can still go and find some way to make money myself. But many people are taking care of their children by themselves and if they get sick then there is no way to make any money to buy food.”
Namja and Tamanna
I crouch to enter through the door and keep my head ducked because it was not made for tall people. Even above the oven, firewood fills the space where my chest and head wood be, from chest-high up to the top of the angled tent-shape ceiling. After my eyes adjust to the darkness, I see Namja’s baby girl, Tamanna, asleep on the bed just to the right of the entrance, undisturbed by our presence. She looks very small on the large bed.
Namja tells me that her dream for Tamanna is that she will get a good education, which unfolds the larger story that a good education will bring Tamanna the stability and protection she needs to thrive in this world. But until she has safe water to drink and the knowledge of how to stay healthy, education will be difficult.
Who is there for Namja and Tamanna?
These people. They are all participants in Lifewater’s mWASH training this past month. They are learning how to help people access safe water, improve their sanitation, and teach them live-saving behaviors like handwashing with soap. They are humble, funny, and eager to learn. They practice difficult conversations because getting someone to change the way they’ve done things their whole life isn’t easy. They record a lot with their phones so they don’t forget, and so they can share their knowledge however people will listen. They learn to make tippy-taps, an inexpensive hand washing device.
Lifewater is helping to build a reverse osmosis plant in Joymoni to help them and their neighbors get safe water. We are deploying this formidable army of hygiene and sanitation trainers and promoters to build the relationships that save lives. This project is hard because it calls for new solutions and not just the strategic application of known solutions. It will require the investment and gifts of everyone in the community, but the stakes are high. The work in Bangladesh can make a young mother’s dream come true – Tamanna and thousands like her will be given the opportunity to live and thrive.