World Water Day 2022 – Groundwater depletion: Unearthing the invisible crisis  

Entrepreneurial ecosystems
Shayla Akter is a middle-aged housewife living in a densely-populated industrial area of Cumilla in Bangladesh. Throughout her life, Shayla and her family have depended on the water from the family tube well for drinking and household use. However, for the last few years, they have been suffering from water scarcity as the ground water level has continued to fall below the suction capacity of the tube well. 

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case as many tube wells across Bangladesh are on the verge of becoming inactive due to depleting ground water level. In fact, Bangladesh has lost a third of its groundwater within a decade. To make matters worse, it is anticipated that the groundwater level will continue to fall at an accelerated rate due to the increasing population and unsustainable groundwater extraction practices in Bangladesh. According to a study conducted by WaterAid and RAiN Forum, Bangladesh’s groundwater table is predicted to fall around 115 meters by 2050; equivalent to the height of an eight-story building.

A major contributor to this crisis is the heavy dependency on groundwater for irrigation in Bangladesh as 90% of the extracted groundwater is used for this purpose. Furthermore, 80% of the rural population depend on groundwater for drinking. Urban water supply is also largely dependent on groundwater. In Dhaka City more than 95% of the supply comes from groundwater. Another major reason for this crisis is the rapid industrialisation caused by accelerated economic growth. The textile industry alone utilises more than 1500 million cubic metres of ground water per year. Increasing industrial wastes and contaminants are also responsible for heavy contamination of groundwater pockets in industrial areas, further contributing to the water crisis in urban areas.

Enabling access to safe drinking water

One good news is that both public and private stakeholders have recognised this problem and are trying to do their part to minimise groundwater extraction. For example, Swisscontact in Bangladesh is enabling access to safe drinking water in several areas with water scarcity and addressing the groundwater depletion issue by embedding rainwater harvesting technology in their model. Another development organisation, WaterAid Bangladesh is currently working to ensure the establishment of rainwater harvesting plants in the RMG factories. The Bangladesh government has also taken a few initiatives where local government authorities have restricted the unauthorised set up of deep tube wells.

Given the severity of the issue, there is room for more impactful actions. Different government bodies and authorities of Bangladesh could enforce rigorous monitoring, adaptation, and implementation of the existing legal framework. Moreover, the creation of a specific groundwater law, and attempts to prevent the misuse of supplied water can all help in alleviating the load on groundwater. In addition to adopting environment-friendly initiatives, implementing green policies may bring effective results to utilise alternative sources for raw water. With the support of development partners, startups, and private stakeholders, Bangladesh could also try introducing and implementing rainwater harvesting, artificial groundwater pocket recharging, greywater recycling, water auditing, etc.

Protecting groundwater recognised as global problem

Depleting groundwater is also a global problem as more water is extracted from aquifers than is recharged by rain and snow. United Nations (UN) has recognised the issue of groundwater in the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)'s Agenda 2030 to prioritise this silent but deadly crisis. Recognising its importance, the UN-Water has declared this year’s world water day theme as "Groundwater: Making the Invisible Visible".

These initiatives alone cannot ensure good groundwater governance unless they are realised into actions. Given the importance of groundwater to protect our ecosystem, keep rivers flowing, and prevent land subsidence and saltwater intrusion, enough global efforts have not been taken to address this crisis. The time is ripe to make a collective effort to protect groundwater and help the lives of millions of people like Shayla, who are vulnerable to this is an invisible crisis. Sustainable groundwater management is necessary, not only for ensuring access to safe water for all but for the long-term sustainability of our environment.

The project "Innovative Business Model for clean and affordable drinking water" is financed by Lokales Wasser 37 AG / Max Ditting AG. It is part of the Swisscontact Development Programme, which is co-financed by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA). 

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Even though water has been officially recognised as a human right by the Bangladeshi government, 60% of Bangladesh’s 160 million inhabitants have no access to clean drinking water. Many people live on polluted land or with polluted groundwater. Rural and rapidly growing (sub)urban areas are not usually connected to the public drinking water supply. People collect water of questionable quality from unofficial and informal providers at high prices.