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Our depleting groundwater: Dos and don’ts

Md. Sadid Uddin | December 11, 2018 00:00:00

In recent years, Bangladesh has become one of the most remarkable success stories. From a bottomless basket, the country has done a miracle in many aspects. The country has been able to maintain a steady GDP growth rate over the past few years, driven by double-digit growth in the manufacturing and construction sectors. Bangladesh takes pride in being the second-largest garment exporter in the world only after China. Such an economic growth is driven by massive of water usage, especially groundwater. Since Bangladesh is likely to enjoy this type of growth over the next few years, the country will need more water. In the same process, the country is depleting its groundwater level even at a faster rate; the issue most of the Bangladeshis are not even aware of. Even the western buyers have little or no idea at all regarding how much water is used to wash and dye the garments they buy. Groundwater is a precious natural resource like oil or gas. If the country continues to increase consuming more groundwater in coming process, how long will we enjoy our economic growth?

Let's clear up what happens when a huge amount of groundwater is extracted. Because this will explain how groundwater extraction at mass level is threatening the future of our next generation. Actually, such an extraction creates two problems. First of all, as more and more groundwater is extracted, a hollow is created underground. This hollow may be responsible for collapse. Secondly, huge extraction of groundwater is responsible for depleting water table. In another way to say, we have no other way but to dig deeper in order to get the same amount of water. The situation can easily be understood from the water level of Dhaka city, each year water level is dropping by 2.5 per cent in the city. From that, people need to understand that the water level is finite and if we extract too much water, someday we will have no more water to extract. If the water table is not properly recharged, it will become dry. The consequence will be unbearable to all of us!

Of all water resources, people rely much on groundwater because of its both quality and quantity. Easy availability, better quality and low cost for abstraction are some of the reasons why people are becoming more dependent on groundwater compared to other sources of water such as surface water. Agriculture, industry and households uses are the key users of groundwater worldwide. By 2011, 2.0 per cent of total industrial demand, 88 per cent of total agricultural demand and 10 per cent of domestic demand are provided by groundwater abstraction.

The key factors of growth of Bangladesh are due to the expansion of agricultural and garments sector. Let's explore how growth in agriculture and garments is fuelled by massive extraction of water resources.

According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, agriculture contributes to 18.6 per cent of total GDP. It's no longer surprising that Bangladesh is an agricultural-based country. The country relied mostly on surface water prior to 1970s. Boro rice is considered high-yielding but grows in dry soon. With the objective of attaining self-sufficiency in rice, the country installed millions of hand tubewell (or popularly known as drinking tubewell) and shallow irrigation tubewell (STW) under the scheme of "Clean Drinking Water Decade" and "Watsan programme". These programmes helped the country increase productivity of boro rice and also ensure safe drinking water for all. In consequence, water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera etc. decreased significantly and irrigation practices improved significantly too. It should be mentioned that common people of Bangladesh used to drink untreated surface water before the 1990s. The situation is quite different nowadays. According to a study by General Economics Division (2015), 80 per cent of total irrigation is done by groundwater and also 80 per cent of the total population of the country rely on groundwater. Thus, the availability of groundwater and low costs fuelled both agricultural growth and improved overall health condition of the country. Agriculture is known as the biggest consumer of groundwater, with total 88 per cent of total groundwater uses by 2011.

The following graph depicts how more groundwater withdrawal helps the country achieve self-sufficiency in rice. Bangladesh produces mainly three kinds of rice: aus, aman and boro. Aus is grown during pre-monsoon period. Aus is low yielding rice and mainly rainfed. On the other hand, aman rice is grown during monsoon period. But it's also low-yielding ice. It should be noted that boro rice is known as high yielding-rice and grown during dry winter season, typically from January through June. From the chart it can be observed that aus and aman production remained somewhat same from 1991 to 2013. But during the same interval, rice production for boro increased to 18.8 million tonnes from 6.8 million tonnes. According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, boro rice contributes to 55 per cent of total rice production in Bangladesh. But the coin has the opposite side of the story to tell too. Such an increase in boro production has come at an increasing withdrawal of groundwater. Rahman and Ahmed in a study found that of total groundwater used for irrigation, boro rice farmers solely are responsible for 73 per cent uses. To support boro rice production, the government and NGOs installed a huge number of shallow tubewells (STW) and deep tubewells (DTW). In a time horizon from 1975 to 2007, shallow tubewells-based irrigation area increased from 57,000 hectares to 3044,000 hectares and deep tubewells-based irrigation areas increased from 138,000 hectares to 702,000 hectares. A study by Water Resources Planning Organisation (WARPO) reveals that 75 per cent of total cultivated areas use groundwater and only 25 per cent of total irrigated areas use surface water. In northern parts of the country, the water tables are already decreasing and for that, the challenges lying with groundwater have to be addressed with utmost care. With increasing population, the country will need to produce more rice and as a matter of fact, groundwater will have a role to play in improving the rural economy in Bangladesh. How the country addresses the issue in the years ahead has become a concern for all of us!


Similarly, the success in the garments sector has come at the expense of groundwater. It is estimated that each and every year around 1,500 billion litres of water is used in the garment industry only to dye and wash the clothing, according to a study by the International Finance Corporation. This amount of water is quite enough for 0.6 million Olympic swimming pools, just imagine the consequence. This amount of water can meet water demand for 0.8 million people for a whole year!

Most people consider groundwater to be free and extract water on their own on own land. The state-run Water Supply and Sewerage Authority charges around BDT 0.0326 for one litre of water. If that is put into perspective 1,500 billion litres of water at this rate, the total value of groundwater is $611 million.

Understanding water as a key resource, developing countries put a significant effort into addressing the issue. Many of Asian, African and South American countries adopted laws in order to protect their groundwater. Modern water law adopted by developed countries include comprehensive approaches with efficient management tools and research-based findings for effective management. In case of Bangladesh, the remarkable economic growth has been due to the industrial revolution and achievement of near self-sufficiency in rice. It has come at the expense of excessive water withdrawal, water pollution by industries and poor sanitation system. The decline in groundwater table is only one reason for the scarcity of fresh water. Reduced water flows, polluted surface level water in rivers, lack of ETP plant, shrinking lakes and intermittent supply and conflicts on water further aggravate the situation making fresh water a scarce resource.

Bangladesh has on an average 1,200 mm annual rainfall throughout the year, according to Chowdhury (2010). According to a study by Master Plan Organisation (1987), only a small portion of groundwater recharge is done by river water (0.04 per cent). Most significant groundwater recharge is done by rainfall, it was found in a study that 11 per cent of total rainfall recharges to the total rainfall. The rest can't be recharged due to drainage to nearest water bodies and evaporation of water. The decrease in mean rainfall, change in monsoon period can create more troubles to groundwater in Bangladesh.

The situation started to improve though. Bangladesh uses 250 litres of water to wash 1.0 kg of apparel. But global practice is around 60-70 litres. The International Finance Corporation worked with 200 factories under a programme named 'Partnership for Cleaner Textile (PaCT). It is suggested that these 200 factories can save $16 million a year if they are able to reduce water consumption level. Cleaner production reduces water usage level to around 70 per cent in two years. But there's much yet to be done in this regard.

In many parts of the world, water is valued as public wealth. Most of the Muslim countries treat water resources as public property. Saudi Arabia, in fact, regulates private ownership through imposing permits of drilling of wells, as mentioned by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

The increasing withdrawal of groundwater in Bangladesh over the last few decades was driven by the effort to attain self-sufficiency in food and ensure pure drinking water to all and also growing population. Beyond any doubt, the groundwater extraction helped many people come out of poverty. The country needs more development in the coming years and more groundwater has to be extracted then. No simple solution can be provided. Still, efficient resource management can reduce groundwater withdrawal to some extent. In our country, 'resource management' got little attention compared to 'resource development'. Rice is a water-intensive crop. So to reduce groundwater consumption, the country can focus on crop diversification. About 90 per cent of total irrigation water is supplied through groundwater mainly in boro-growing areas. Therefore, if rice production is restricted where groundwater level is vulnerable, it can reduce pressure on groundwater. For crop diversification, less water-requiring crops like wheat, maize, legumes and myriads of alternative crops can be used. Specially, wheat and maize require very small amount of water (300 to 500 mm) if they are grown after rice production. This is possible through extra moisture in root level from previously grown rice crop only if zero tillage or strip method is used. This way, the country can reduce groundwater consumption but also save foreign exchange, which is now being spent on importing these two grains.

The government of Bangladesh has taken several initiatives to combat misuse of groundwater and still there's much to do in this regard. Shubhra Bhattacharjee, country director at SIWI Bangladesh (Stockholm International Water Institute) notes that borehole licencing and water pricing can be a mechanism to evade misuse of water in Bangladesh. The government should introduce licencing and also punish any violation strictly. Moreover, farmers should be well-educated regarding the use of water.

It is well acknowledged that water is another form of natural resource and life cannot be imagined without water, thus its protection is indispensable for human civilisation. What can be done to improve water governance in Bangladesh? As water is a limited water resource, Shubhra Bhattacharjee expressed noted that water pricing mechanism can be an effective way to improve water mechanism. Asked what the pricing mechanism can be, he replied, "Pricing mechanism is yet to be decided and it should be rational to all parties." It should be mentioned that different countries in the world including the European Union nations, Sharia-based countries and Brazil too are considering water tariff to minimise the overuse of groundwater.

Many experts believe that the economic growth is likely to continue in near future too. This only means more water is required to support that growth. In recent years, Bangladesh has considered water a very important resource. Still, adequate policy has to come to ensure effective coordination for all of the ministries for water resource management. It's no doubt that managing a balance between water supply and water demand is a key challenge for supporting rapid economic growth of Bangladesh. Till then, we need to make sure that we will be cautious while we use water even in domestic usage. Every single drop is important, we need to remember that. Each of us can save around 7.5 litres of water individually if we keep stopping water tap while brushing our teeth. Leakage in water distribution pipes should be repaired immediately and push taps should be used more in lieu of ordinary water taps. Let's never forget that every single drop of water is priceless, as water is scarce in nature.

The writer is a student of MBA programme at Institute of Business Administration (IBA), University of Dhaka.


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