Pure waste of public money: Ponds dug for drinking water are now used for fish farming

A government project to provide drinking water to locals in Gobindganj in Gaibandha’s Gobindganj by re-excavating ponds has proved fruitless, with the zila parish renting out many of the water bodies for fish farming.

The project, which cost Tk 1.5 crore, was itself questionable as it was carried out without assessing whether the locals would even drink the water, ultimately leading to a complete waste of public money.

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The Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE) re-excavated 26 ponds between 2018 and 2020 and returned them to zila parish on January 27, 2021.

While visiting several villages in the upazila, this correspondent found that, according to the tenants, at least seven of the ponds had been leased by Gaibandha Zila Parishad for fish farming.

Some tenants claimed that all the ponds under the project had been leased by the parish. Villagers of the area also claimed that the parish rented out to influential people.

Even realizing that the ponds cannot be rented out for fish farming, Gaibandha Zila Parishad administrator Ataur Rahman Ata admitted to renting out one of the ponds for fish farming.

According to Rezwan Hossain, DPHE’s executive engineer in Gaibandha, fish farming would render the ponds unsuitable for drinking water supply.

But Ata, the administrator and also a deputy chairman of the central committee of the Jatiya party, said the DPHE had not explained to them that the ponds were suitable for supplying drinking water when returned to the zila parish.

However, the CEO of Gaibandha Zila Parishad, Abdur Rauf, had signed for the readiness of the ponds when they were returned, according to documents The Daily Star has obtained copies of.

This apparent separation between the local government and a government agency occurs during a project that many of the intended beneficiaries and one expert have called unnecessary, as locals already have easy access to drinking water.

The DPHE spent approximately Tk 5.77 lakh re-excavating each pond, constructing walkways, barbed wire fences around it, planting coconut palms on the banks, installing a tube well and a water tank with pond sand filters (PSFs) and UV filters.

Talks with people from the villages of Aligao, Enayetpur, Dharmapur and Kamdia revealed that almost all houses in those areas have their own drinking water facilities. People get drinking water from tube wells or submersible pumps. No one wanted to drink the pond water.

“The aim of the project was to encourage people to use surface water. We conducted a study in collaboration with a development partner and found that groundwater levels in this area are declining,” said DPHE Executive Engineer Rezwan Hossain recently.

He said they had not conducted a feasibility study on whether the local population needed this source of drinking water before carrying out the project.

The groundwater level in Gobindganj upazila was between 6.5-9 meters, according to the survey conducted in May last year, after the DPHE project was already completed.

Prof Chowdhury Sarwar Jahan from the Geology and Mining Department of Rajshahi University said, “There is no shortage of drinking water when the groundwater level is between 6.5-9 meters. Carrying out such a project in an area where there is no salinity or arsenic in the groundwater is a waste of resources.”

It is more important to use surface water for drinking in areas such as Rajshahi, Naogaon and Chapainawabganj where groundwater levels have dropped, he said.

Abdur Rashid, 58, a resident of Aligao village, told The Daily Star: “The people of the village have been using this pond for fish farming for decades after getting rent from the zila parish. We have no shortage here. to drinking water. Nobody is interested in drinking the purified water from the pond.”

Rahmat Ali from Enayetpur and Amin Molla, a farmer in Kamdia village, said the same about drinking water supplies in their villages and that the government has installed these facilities without conducting a needs-based assessment.

RENTALS FOR FISH BREEDING

In April, July and August of this year, this reporter visited seven re-excavated ponds and found that individuals, social and religious organizations were breeding fish there.

“I have contacted the authority of the zila parish and have rented the pond. I have been breeding fish in the pond for the past six months,” said Saiful Islam from Enayetpur village.

He claimed that almost all of the ponds re-excavated by DPHE have been leased for fish farming.

Md Belal Uddin of Aligao village said he was given a three-year lease of a re-excavated pond for 40,000 Tk last year but had to transfer the contract to Aligao Uttarpara Manab Unnoyan Club after an arbitration in the village.

Abu Talha, vice president of the club, said: “We have been breeding fish in this pond for the past seven months. We have seen DPHE re-excavate the pond over the past two to three years to provide safe drinking water. fish farming is completely prohibited there. But since the zila parish gives the lease, we have taken it for the development of the club.”

Another pond of Enayetpur village has been leased to the village mosque committee for 30,000 Tk for three years.

Some villagers claimed that this was a quarter of the real value of the lease.

Abdul Rahim, secretary of the Enayetpur mosque committee, also said that they were aware of the actual purpose of the pond but took the lease because the zila parish gave it.

Ataur Rahman, who was leased from the village pond of Araji Piarapur, and Saiful Islam of Enayetpur both said that the administrator of the zila parish leased all the ponds as part of a ceremonial fish farming project.

This correspondent also discovered that the village pond of Chalita has been leased to a former leader of the Chhatra League of Dhaka College, the village pond of Shihigao to another person named Saiful Islam and the village pond of Maklaim to one Jahidul Islam.

The Daily Star has also obtained copies of some deeds signed by Rauf, the CEO of Gaibandha Zila Parishad.

Rauf said: “The decision to rent comes from the authorities of the zila parish. I am only the executor of the decision.”

He declined to disclose the number of ponds rented out for fish farming.

Zila Parishad administrator Ata said: “Only one pond in Aligao village, which has been re-excavated by the DPHE, has been leased. The rest are not.

“We can’t rent out the ponds,” Ata said, but when asked why they rented out the Aligao pond, he said they were doing it because it was not suitable for supplying drinking water.

A recent visit to some of those ponds revealed that parts of fences and many stones had been removed from walkways and that the coconut trees had died.

The DPHE sign with the instructions: “Re-excavated Protected Pond: Swimming, washing, fishing, farming in this pond is completely prohibited” was found damaged or removed.

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