Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
Bangladesh: Development Threatened by Worsening Water Quality

Via Future Directions International, a look at Bangladesh’s water challenges:

Bangladesh has experienced remarkable growth over the last decade, propelling itself from one of the world’s most impoverished countries, to one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It has made impressive steps in poverty reduction, improving health and education and has reduced infant and maternal mortality. It also has a strong agricultural sector and good rates of food security, despite frequent natural disasters and a growing population. If it maintains the current trend of improvement, Bangladesh is expected to leave the United Nations’ Least Developed Country category by 2024.

While its achievements have been impressive, Bangladesh is still highly vulnerable to environmental problems, caused by both climate change and human activity.


Bangladesh sits in the delta of three major rivers, the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna (GBM), while 57 transboundary rivers carry flood water from upstream countries. It has, as a result, a long history of major floods. Recurrent losses, both human and economic, have caused Bangladesh to invest heavily in flood management, allowing it to mitigate the worst of the damage caused by the floods. In contrast, however, considerably less has been done to avoid a series of largely man-made challenges that threaten many of Bangladesh’s water supplies.

Bangladesh relies on its rivers for drinking water, fishing and agriculture. It is also the lowest riparian country of the GBM basin and 92.5 per cent of its surface water resources originate across boundaries. Out of the 54 rivers that flow into Bangladesh from India, 25 are diverted at one or more points.  This not only causes deficiencies in river flow in non-monsoon months, but partially contributes to rising levels of salinity in Bangladesh’s rivers, as low water levels allow saline water to penetrate further into fresh water sources.

High salt concentrations in its rivers are made worse, in many places, by storms and cyclones, which deposit brackish water from nearby tidal channels in coastal areas. The rising popularity of brine shrimp aquaculture has also caused higher levels of salinity in several areas. It is now common, in parts of the country, to rotate paddies between (salt-tolerant) rice farming during the monsoon and aquaculture in the dry season. This not only increases salinity in those fields, but can also increase salinity in neighbouring fields if the salty water is improperly disposed of.

Other forms of pollution are also responsible for Bangladesh’s water crisis. Thousands of industries, particularly those in Dhaka, discharge roughly 15,000 metres³ of waste into rivers and canals a year. Most of the waste treatment processes that remove infectious agents are inadequate to deal with the toxic chemicals in that water. Consequently, most rivers in Bangladesh are highly polluted, causing a wide range of health problems for those relying on surface water.

To alleviate this problem, the Government of Bangladesh dug shallow tube wells that, it was hoped, would provide a safer alternative to unsafe river water. While this has helped Bangladesh cut infant mortality rates by more than half, it has brought its own set of problems. Millions now rely on the tube wells for personal water consumption and approximately 75 per cent of crops are irrigated with groundwater. As a result, Bangladesh extracts more groundwater than can be recharged. As of 2013, this meant that groundwater storage levels had dropped by 32 per cent. As Bangladesh’s population is expected to swell from 160 million to 220 million by 2050, this trend will no doubt accelerate.

Although the majority of people in Bangladesh rely on groundwater for consumption, it is often contaminated with arsenic, which naturally occurs in sediments in deltaic regions. The World Health Organization once called this the ‘largest poisoning of a population in history,’ with recent estimates suggesting that 43,000 Bangladeshis are killed by arsenic poisoning each year, especially in poor, rural areas.

While Bangladesh has made astonishing steps in improving livelihoods, degradation of its water supplies poses significant risks to its human development. This problem has also caused significant economic losses. Unless the Government of Bangladesh acts quickly to implement strong regulatory policies, this degradation is likely to continue to worsen.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 5th, 2018 at 9:41 pm and is filed under Bangladesh.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. 

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

© 2019 Water Politics LLC.  'Water Politics', 'water. politics. life', and 'Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty World' are service marks of Water Politics LLC.