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Skyscraper-depth well brings clean water to Rohingya refugees

  • Skyscraper-depth well brings clean water to Rohingya refugees
    Credit: IOM

About the entity

International Organization for Migration IOM
Established in 1951, IOM is the leading inter-governmental organization in the field of migration and works closely with governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental partners.

Under clear 36-degree Celsius skies, an exhausted Rafiq leans against his house, surrounded by his five children. Glancing upwards, he ponders another sweltering walk down a steep dirt path to haul clean water for his family. A pump just nearby provides water whose drinkability he views as “unreliable” and requires an arduous hillside trek. Sterilizing water by boiling also is difficult because firewood is hard to come by. 

Despite high wet-season rainfalls and abundant pump stations, getting clean water in Cox’s Bazar is a challenge for many Rohingya refugees. Nearly a million are crammed into the world’s most densely-packed settlement just miles from Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar. In theory, well water is abundant near the surface, but human contaminants can make it undrinkable. Water often must be carried by hand - a task that frequently falls on women.

“It isn’t clear how the large influx of people has affected the ground water,” says Alessandro Petrone – Programme Manager at IOM’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) team made up of engineers tasked with providing safe water to Rohingya refugees. Conventional lever pumps can only operate up to seven meters depth and digging deeper is only viable if it yields large volumes of water. 

IOM and partner Japan International Development Agency (JICA) confronted this challenge by digging one of the area’s deepest underground shafts. At over three football fields in depth, the recently completed well will spew clean water from safer depths. The well was a heavy engineering project requiring a massive 20-tonne drill shipped from abroad. It is located in Camp 12, which is just miles from the Myanmar border. 

The drilling pushed under an initial 100 meters or so of potentially contaminated water, and then into a web of aquifers – subterranean pools trapped for thousands of years untouched by surface contaminants.  

Because aquifers are sandwiched between impermeable rock, some are highly pressurised and others pressure-neutral. The WASH team used sensors to analyse pressure at different aquifers to determine locations where water could be forced into the well pipe. They then installed ‘screens’, or holes at the defined locations to allow free flow. Now complete, the well pipe taps more than a dozen aquifer hits on its nearly half-mile journey. 

But bringing water up to the surface requires tremendous energy – an expensive proposition in an area as isolated as Kutupalong. IOM installed 187 solar panels, generating 61kW to fully capitalise on the tremendous green energy potential and fuel a powerful pump to suck water to the surface. 

Solar energy also powers an automated chlorination plant to ensure shelf life. Six 95,000-litre storage tanks allow for gravity-fed distribution to inhabitants. When it comes online in late May, about 30,000 people will benefit from the 500 cubic meters of clean water pumped from deep in the earth’s crust. 

“One small hand pump can deliver water for 250 people, so this is like having 120 pumps. It is also a centralised system that offers complete reliability in chlorination. You don’t need to station people at each pump to provide chlorine,” said Petrone. Technicians regularly test water quality to ensure residual chlorine measures 0.2-0.5 mg per litre. 

Petrone has overseen projects in Latin America, Lebanon and Somalia, but says that the well tapping Tipam Sandstone Aquifer is his biggest yet. “This is the largest in terms of litres per hour, length of pipes, solar power installed, number of panels, and water storage. The size of the hole is huge – it’s the size of a skyscraper when you think about it. And with the solar panels – there’s no electricity bill!” 

After the project comes online in a few weeks, IOM will work with Dhaka University to chart the area’s geology with a view to better support managing the Tipam Sandstone Aquifer. An open source, online map has already been produced to help with future research, monitoring and rationalization of the available resources to the Rohingya but also to the host communities of the area. 

For Rafiq, the timing of the new well couldn’t be better. “Monsoon season has nearly arrived and it’s almost impossible to get up the muddy slope with water when it’s wet,” he says. 

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