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'Pani Apa': The women driving change in Bangladesh's climate-affected coastal communities

This article was originally published in ( )

Although Bangladesh has made significant progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by 2030, access to safe drinking water remains a major development and public health challenge, particularly in the country's coastal region, which is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change on water sources.

However, the Gender-responsive Coastal Adaptation (GCA) project, jointly funded by the Bangladesh government and Green Climate Fund, is making significant strides in providing reliable access to potable water in five upazilas across the Khulna and Satkhira regions, the country’s worst-affected coastal region.

The struggle to find fresh water is a daily battle, and even when they do, it may not be safe to drink. The problem becomes more acute during the dry season, leaving coastal communities reliant on rainwater as their only viable water source. This water-fetching task is painful and significantly impacts the households and economic activities of coastal women.

The GCA project, implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), has installed 13,308 rainwater harvesting plants in each household. Each tank can store 2,000 litres of rainwater. The project has also employed ‘Pani Apas’ (water women) to maintain the water plants.

This year's World Water Day is celebrated under the theme 'Accelerating Change,' focusing on solving the water and sanitation crisis. The ‘Pani Apas’ are now considered ‘change makers’ in the coastal community.

The project has developed 101 numbers of ‘Pani-Apa’ systems for providing operation and maintenance services of installed GCA water sources in 101 wards of 39 unions of Khulna and Satkhira.The project's innovative approach empowers women in these communities, promoting gender equality and social inclusion. Anima Biswas, 30, who resides in the Kulla union of Satkhira's Assasuni, an area severely affected by coastal damage, has expressed gratitude to the UNDP for providing a tank that has significantly improved her quality of life. “I no longer need to walk miles to fetch water, I can now invest in other activities.” Moreover, she received training from the GCA project and the necessary tools to work as a 'Pani Apa'. Anima goes door to door to clean water tanks and filters and fixes technical problems, if any.

She believes that most people are not well-informed about the importance and process of regular cleaning of tanks. Therefore, through discussions, she advocates for the significance of regular cleaning and maintenance. Her efforts have yielded positive results, and people now seek her advice regarding their rainwater harvesting system, and her social acceptance has also increased. Muslima Khatun, another 'Pani Apa' residing in the Burigoalini union of Satkhira's Shyamnagar, said that her work has provided her with some financial independence as she earns a fee from the households she serves. She can now manage her expenses, and her family values her opinions.