Solar power brings water to the hills of Bangladesh

The women-led initiative in a remote tribal area shows the way ahead for climate adaptation.

Biswarani Chakma of Badal Para village in the Rangamati Hill District of Bangladesh can now collect water from a nearby tap in just 10 minutes, thanks to a 'solar power for water' project that local women implemented last year. image:Rafiqul Montu

Until recently, the womenfolk of Bangladesh’s Rangamati hill district would spend most of their day collecting water from a valley and carrying it up and across treacherous mountain paths. Then, a landslide in 2017 changed the local water channel and worsened the water shortage to such an extent that people started leaving the village.

But last year, the villagers implemented a project that transformed everyone’s lives.

“Even just a year ago, we had to spend ages to collect just a pitcher of water. During the dry season we were able to collect drinking and cooking water with difficulty, but had no water for bathing. But now that crisis is over,” says Biswarani Chakma, 35, a resident of Badal Para village in Jurachhari upazila (sub-district) of Rangamati Hill District in Bangladesh. Chakma now collects water from a nearby tap, in just 10 minutes. And is then free to focus on other household chores and get some free time for herself. 

It all started when the Rangamati Hill District Council decided to help the remote area deal with the worsening effects of the climate crisis. Bangladesh ranks seventh among countries at risk of climate change in the Global Climate Risk Index 2021 published by the non-profit environmental think tank Germanwatch based in Berlin, Germany. Water shortage, already dire in the country’s hilly regions, is getting worse due to the climate crisis.

Jurachhari residents were asked to decide upon a project that would best serve their needs. The women were unanimous in identifying water shortage as their number one problem. Thus began the planning and implementation of the initiative that has now transformed their lives.

Women’s leadership

Jurachhari is a tribal-dominated sub-district that lies 12 km from the district headquarters, but its water crisis had gone unaddressed for years. In 2017, a large regional forest area was destroyed by a landslide, which also blocked a channel of water that flowed down the hill and provided for downstream villagers’ needs.

The elderly residents of Badal Para village of this sub-district said that the residents of several villages had been suffering due to the stoppage of the natural water flow in the hills. Forests were withering as water streams dried up. After the 2017 landslide, people started migrating away. As many as 18 of the 22 families in Bilaichhari’s Tikuniya Tripura neighborhood have moved due to water shortage.

Once the villagers had identified water as their biggest problem, planning for the “safe water through solar power” project started. The residents of five villages held a meeting, where they formed a Climate Resilience Committee. Women took up the key functional positions including general secretary and treasurer, while an elderly male resident became the president.

The main consideration was to extract water at a low cost. Instead of waiting for electricity supply, the villagers went for modular solar power. The Rangamati Hill District Council provided financial support, and X and X also came forward, but the works were all undertaken by the villagers themselves.

Badal Para village of Jurachhari was chosen as the site for installing the key infrastructure, where resident Niranjan Chakma donated 10 decimals of land (one acre equals 100 decimals), worth Rs 500,000 taka (about USD5,000). Here, a 5220-watt solar panel and a 3 horse power water pump were installed. Water pipes were laid 400 feet deep to pump fresh groundwater, using solar power, for storage in a 5000-litre water tank. Pipes were also laid to take water from this tank to taps in other villages.

Villagers volunteered their time and labour for installing and maintaining the water tanks, taps, water lines, solar panels, etc., overseen by the Climate Resilience Committee. A women’s fund was set up for the maintenance – beneficiary families deposit 30 taka per month into this fund.

Families now collect clean water from community taps in their own villages. In villages where water supply is not yet available, the women fetch water from Badal Para, which is much closer to their homes than the earlier source had been.

Some 73 families are benefiting from this project.

Simultaneously, villagers’ committees have been formed to preserve and maintain the forests and mountain springs.

The villagers’ involvement makes sure the project meets their needs and gives them a stake in its success.

Jharna Chakma, General Secretary of Climate Resilience Committee said, ‘We implement the safe water supply project through the collective unity of five villagers through the Climate Resilience Committee. Here, women’s opinions had more priority. At present water line connection has been provided to government primary schools and community clinics. There has been a change in the quality of life of the local people by getting water easily.’

“There was excellent coordination of local leadership in this project. Women’s decisions were given priority. Although these committees were formed regardless of [gender], they were led by women. This is the novelty of the project,” says Prasenjit Chakma, Assistant Resident Representative of UNDP-Bangladesh said, which supported the project, along with USAID and Danida.

A different life

“Our forefathers suffered, and then we suffered. But now, I can fetch water easily and there’s plenty of it,” says Shefalika Chakma, 40, of Choumuhani village, who had witnessed water shortage since she was a child.

Deepayan Chakma, 41, who runs a shop in Chowmuhani Bazar in Jurachhari, no longer has to leave his shop unattended or closed to collect water. “The water tap is right in front of my shop,” he smiles.

And students of Shuknachhari Government Primary School no longer need to collect impure water from the ringwell. Now the school gets clean water from the project.

Recognition for women’s initiative

The success of the initiative has gained worldwide recognition. The project received the Local Adaptation Champions Award from the international organisation Global Center on Adaptation in the Inclusive Leadership category.

“The active participation of the local community and their decision-making power has made this project a success, said Arunendu Tripura, Public Relations Officer of Rangamati Hill District Parishad, which steered the project, after receiving the award at COP27 in Sharm-al-Sheikh. “Being free from political influence is another reason for the success of this project. This success will show us the way to solve many more problems.”

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