Deluged Bangladeshis hard pressed to find clean water

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The people of Mugdapara are swamped with water. But for many there is not a drop to drink. For more than two weeks, flood waters have covered this low-lying neighborhood in northeast Dacca and contaminated the water supply. Every day, hundreds of city workers and volunteers have collected clean water elsewhere in the city and carried it in large tanks and small containers, by truck, cart, and rickshaw, to the edge of the flooded streets. From there, it goes by boat to about 250,000 people marooned in the area.

``There is only stinking water in our wells. We cannot use it for cooking, washing, or drinking,'' said Mukeesa Khatum as she waded home with two gallon jugs for her family of five. ``We have brought our water this way ever since we were hit by the floods.''

As flood waters slowly recede across Bangladesh, this impoverished nation of 108 million faces a crisis: not enough clean water. City officials say that one-sixth of Dacca's 120 pumping stations are overrun with brown, muddy water from swollen rivers.

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They predict that hundreds of thousands of people will be without clean water for weeks to come.

``In many areas, the water lines are under water,'' says Shafiuddin Ahmad, executive engineer of the Water and Sewerage Authority of Dacca. ``Where the water was over one foot, those tanks are contaminated.''

Many areas of Dacca are filled with mud and the stench of stagnant water and rotting garbage. Although government health officials deny that an epidemic is imminent, health workers in areas like Mugdapara say illnesses, especially diarrhea and dysentery, are spreading rapidly.

At the Mugdapara community center, more than 1,000 people are jammed into two large rooms. For days, men, women, and small children have eaten, slept, and waited in several feet of water.

Nearly half of the people camped there are ill, but many have begun to recognize the danger of drinking the filthy river water. When the daily supply of water is brought by small boat ``people are breaking their heads to get it,'' says one man who has been living in the camp for two weeks with his wife and four children.

Health officers say the situation will worsen. Already, one in six people in Dacca is living in a crowded, damp, and dirty camp. Municipal officials expect a new rush as hundreds of thousands marooned in the countryside flee to the city in search of food and clean water.

City water plants, many of which were barely saved from being overrun by floods, can manage only an extra half million liters daily of fresh water to meet Dacca's shortage. The city normally uses about 90 million liters daily.

Municipal water officials say they can only gradually restore regular water supplies in many parts of Dacca. Water purification tablets are in short supply and cost five times their usual price on the black market.

The volunteers supplying Mugdapara, ranging from Communist Party members and Muslim fundamentalists to city truck drivers and family planners, expect to carry on their efforts for some time.

``The situation will not even improve in three months,'' predicts Syed Mahboob Alam Chowdhuri, head of the Family Planning Association of Bangladesh which has been hauling water to Mugdapara every day.

``For many, drinking water will not be available soon.''

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