PATHORKHALI, Bangladesh – Shahanara Begum beams as she works the pump lifting water from the village pond into a new sand filter that creates clean drinking water for many people in her village and nearby areas.
Shahanara Begum is proud to be one of seven women who maintains the filter, but she is especially happy to have clean drinking water within a hundred yards of her house. Before the filter was placed in June 2011, all the women of Pathorkhali village had to walk several miles and pay for pump water or make do with murky pond water.
Pathorkhali is in the center of the area worst ravaged by Hurricane Aila in 2009. At the time, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) worked with partner organization, Uttaran, to respond to needs for food, work, water and shelter. From MCC’s $68,000 response, a school and a road also were rebuilt.
As the people of Pathorkhali and surrounding villages struggle to get back on their feet after Aila, collecting drinking water continues to be a big burden, especially for the women who sometimes spend half their day collecting it. Ponds that have been the traditional source of drinking water were filled with salt by Aila’s tidal surge.
The village is built along an embankment that protects it and the surrounding farmland from high tides, which flow back up the rivers in this tidal region. On the edge of the village, a hundred yards of the embankment, torn out during the hurricane, is still missing. After almost two years of remaining open to the daily tides, the embankment was finally patched further back from the Kabadak River.
Dead trees stand as testimony to the damage wreaked by two years of saline water inundation. Over much of the region, only date palm trees were able to survive the standing salt water. Rain water is only slowly washing salt from the fields, and much of the earth is still barren when it should be laden with ripening rice.
In most of the area, attempts at well drilling either stall at rocky layers or fail to bring up fresh water. Beside the pond in Pathorkhali is the rusting stump of a well that was sunk to 800 feet and then abandoned when it only brought up salty water.
With MCC support, Uttaran, a Bangladeshi organization that has been involved in disaster response and management in the southwest region of Bangladesh since 1985, worked with villagers in Pathorkhali to address this problem by emptying a community-owned pond of salt water and excavating it to build up the banks above flood level. Then Uttaran installed a pond sand filter.
The filter is a simple system: a hand pump lifts water from the pond to let it slowly filter down through layers of sand and aggregate. This filtration, along with natural biological activity, renders the water clean and safe for drinking. The only maintenance needed is periodic rinsing of the filter bed, which is the responsibility of Shahanara Begum’s committee.
Pathorkhali’s pond filter now attracts women from all around, serving about 400 families. Rashida Begum is one of those who come from furthest away. She walks an hour from her village, trying to keep up with the needs of her extended family of 12.
“We use six or seven kolshis a day, so getting water can take most of the morning,” she says as she rests beside the well. (A kolshi is a round, metal or clay pot with a funnel-shaped opening that holds about 15 liters or 4 gallons.) “Sometimes my grandchildren come to help me. But when they are in school, I come alone.”
Rashida Begum said she believes a fresh-water pond in her village would benefit from a filter too. Staff from Uttaran promised her they would consider it. Uttaran is well aware of the continued need to ensure fresh drinking water in this area – especially from water sources designed with future flooding in mind.
Daniel Thomas is an MCC worker based in Bogra, Bangladesh. He is an engineer from Bemidji, Minn.