Water Quality in BangladeshBangladesh, a South Asian country bordered by India, is one of the most impoverished and most densely populated countries in the world. Bangladesh currently has a population of 161 million in an area slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Iowa. Bangladesh’s economy relies heavily on agriculture as 63.2% of the country’s population works in industry and agriculture. Even with an unemployment rate of less than 4%, the poverty rate is 21.8%. The dense population, small area, reliance on agriculture and poverty rate cumulatively create a crucial need for clean water. Humanitarian organizations aim to improve the water quality in Bangladesh.

10 Facts About Water Quality in Bangladesh

  1. Water quality in Bangladesh has been a long-term struggle. Since the country’s independence in 1971, international aid agencies have helped Bangladesh with its water crisis. At the time, a quarter of a million Bangladeshi children were dying each year from bacteria-contaminated surface water. Bacteria and pathogens, such as E. coli, cholera and typhoid, were causing severe health problems for both children and adults.
  2. Bangladesh relies on groundwater. Because of contaminated surface waters in the region, 90% of the population relies on groundwater. Groundwater is the water that lies below the earth’s surface between soil pore spaces and fractures of rock formations. This water source is accessible through tube wells in the region.
  3. UNICEF and the World Bank attempted to improve access to water in Bangladesh. To combat the poor-quality surface drinking water and provide more water for agriculture, these organizations funded the installation of about four million tube wells between 1960 and 1970. The tube wells created access to groundwater throughout the entire country. Unfortunately, this led to mass poisoning due to contaminated groundwater.
  4. The largest mass poisoning in history occurred in Bangladesh. In the 1990s, arsenic was detected in the well water. The wells dug in the 1960s and 1970s were not tested for metal impurities, impacting an estimated 30-35 million people in Bangladesh. Ailments from exposure to arsenic include gastrointestinal diseases, physical deformities, cancer, nerve and circulatory system damage and death. About 1.12 million of the four million wells in Bangladesh are still contaminated with arsenic.
  5. Poor water quality significantly impacts public health. Arsenic poisoning is now the cause of death for one out of five people in Bangladesh. An estimated 75 million people were exposed to arsenic-laden water. The poisoning can cause up to 270,000 future cancer-related deaths. E. coli is also still present in 80% of private piped water taps and 41% of all improved water sources. Sickness from poor water quality is a major issue and 60% of Bangladeshi citizens do not have access to modern health services.
  6. Poor water quality impacts agriculture. Bangladesh relies heavily on agriculture with 70% of its land dedicated to the cultivation of rice, jute, wheat, tea, pulses, oilseeds, vegetables and fruits. The contaminated tube wells provide a majority of the water used for irrigation. As a result, high levels of arsenic are absorbed by many crop plants, specifically rice and root vegetables. This can be deadly to those who consume the produce.
  7. Contaminated wells are still in use. After the testing of tube wells in 1997, the government painted the contaminated wells red and the safe wells green to reduce exposure. However, officials used poor testing kits to examine the wells, leading to incorrectly marked wells. Unfortunately, many green-marked wells hold contaminated water that the public still uses. Additionally, the wells that were marked red were never properly closed off and can still be used today.
  8. Poverty plays a role in access to clean water. Both the wealthy and the impoverished in Bangladesh struggle greatly with poor water quality. However, the population living below the poverty line struggles three times more from water-related diseases and illnesses. Roughly two million people in poverty still lack access to improved water sources. Bangladesh is also one of the most impoverished nations in the world, with a per capita income of around $370. This greatly affects the government’s ability to combat the water crisis.
  9. Poor water quality limits the country’s potential. The economy, public health and education all rely on access to clean and usable water. Poor water quality has led to stunting in more than one-third of Bangladeshi children. These developmental impacts limit education and result in an increase in poverty. The mortality rate of those who have come in contact with contaminated water sources will continue to devastate the economy. Over the next 20 years, this could lead to a loss of about $12.5 billion for the Bangladesh economy.
  10. The water quality in Bangladesh can improve. There are many ways to combat the water crisis in Bangladesh. Creating mechanisms to enhance rainwater capture would provide a better-quality source of usable water. Along with rainwater capture, water purification methods and the construction of a water treatment plant would eliminate contaminants from surface and groundwater. Funded projects by groups like Charity: Water, Lifewater and WaterAid are working to improve sanitation and water quality in Bangladesh.

The Road Ahead

Bangladesh has shown steady and vast improvements in many areas. Life expectancy has grown dramatically in the past few years and now averages 72 years. Bangladesh’s per capita income has also increased and is growing faster than Pakistan’s. Furthermore, Bangladesh shows an upward trend in per capita GDP with an increase of 6% per year. However, water quality still poses a critical issue in Bangladesh. With commitment from the government and humanitarian organizations to resolve the water crisis, Bangladesh will continue to grow and prosper.

Kate A. Trott
Photo: UNICEF