World Water Day: Bringing Hope to a Crisis in Bangladesh
“The world is thirsty because of our needs for food. Today, there are over 7 billion people to feed on the planet and this number is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. To be able to feed everybody, we ﬁrst need to secure water, in sufficient quantity and adequate quality.” (UN Water: World Water Day 2012)
On March 22, 2012, the international community will celebrate World Water Day, an annual campaign designed to draw attention to the importance of sustainably managing water resources across the globe. This year’s campaign focuses on the relationship between water sustainability and food security. IREX is pleased to share the story of two Community Solutions Program (CSP) leaders from Bangladesh dedicated to helping their country achieve these goals.
Home to approximately 160 million people, Bangladesh is struggling to sustain an adequate level of quality freshwater in order to properly feed its people. Unlike other water-scarce countries, Bangladesh is generously endowed with freshwater tributaries and distributaries that generally make for a healthy water ecosystem. However, upriver development in India and China, flooding and coastal deterioration caused from climate change, and water contamination have resulted in a water crisis for the country.
Although Bangladesh is home to three of the world’s great rivers (Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna), susceptibility to flooding and droughts and vulnerability to larger neighboring countries’ freshwater and energy policies negates the benefits these rivers would yield otherwise. To make matters worse, ground water resourced from shallow aquifers has a long history of contamination, primarily high levels of arsenic. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), between 35 and 70 million people in Bangladesh are at risk of being exposed to unhealthy levels of arsenic; the WHO has called it “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history.”
Despite this bleak situation, Mehdi Hasan and Taibur Rahman, young Bangladeshi CSP leaders bring an inspirational vision, expertise and global connectedness to the local context that may be what the country needs to adequately address this water crisis and subsequently increase food security nationwide. As an employee at the Center for Natural Resource Studies in Bangladesh, Hasan is working in the coastal communities to combat saline intrusion in the country’s freshwater resources. As part of his work on coastal restoration projects, Hasan and his colleagues are working with local farmers, introducing different varieties of cash crops, such as rice and vegetables, that have a higher tolerance to salt water and flooding. To Hasan, the objective is simple:“We must increase the community’s ability to adapt to threats of salinity in the soil, and hence to improve food security and the livelihood of the villagers.”
Rahman is leveraging his current position as Assistant Senior Chief of Bangladesh’s Ministry of Planning to make large scale public policy changes that will increase the country’s coastal resiliency, while subsequently strengthening its freshwater resources and food security. According to Rahman, “A more resilient coast will prevent flooding of our freshwater resources, which will impact our farmers’ ability to grow food, our fishermen’s ability to fish, and our people’s ability to eat.”
With the help of his CSP counterpart organization, the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, Rahman is developing Bangladesh’s first ever Coastal Resiliency Index. The goal of the index – which has been modeled after the Sea Grant’s index and contextualized for use in Bangladesh – is to develop a set of coastal resiliency indicators, such as the amount of time stagnant water remains in a town after a flood. This indicator has great implications on how a town should go about reforming its approach to agriculture; for example, the more time stagnant water remains, the more important it is for that town to experiment with water tolerant crops. According to Rahman, “These indicators will raise awareness of specific water and climate related issues among our public officials and will hopefully help to inform the way the government allocates resources and develops policies.”
The best news of all is that people like Hasan and Rahman are not alone. Access to quality water and high levels of food security are of international concern and recognized by the global community as human rights. The United Nations prioritized both issues in the Millennium Development Goals. And as long as programs like Community Solutions exist, future leaders like Hasan and Rahman will continue to have the opportunities to build on their existing experiences and create global networks that will lead to local solutions.