From the Floodwaters Flow The Impact of Water in Bangladesh

| February 1, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Michelle Lee

Situated at the confluence of the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Meghna Rivers, Bangladesh has a tumultuous relationship with water, a problem present in both excess and scarcity. Though the country has many water sources and receives abundant rainfall, clean water is limited and often polluted. Flooding during the monsoon season leaves thousands without homes every year. Despite repeated efforts, a number of interplaying social, economic, and cultural factors contribute to the current stagnation in water quality improvement.

Boy bathes at a public tap in Pallebi, Bangladesh. (Courtesy of

Bangladesh’s story has been a difficult one, but not one without hope. Though the country is limited in economic means, with per capita GDP of only $673, it is still one of the few developing countries on target to meet many of the Millennium Development Goals. Government led initiatives, such as the community-led Total Sanitation Campaign, have increased ground water tube wells, hand pumps, and latrines in remote areas where water access is especially limited.

Since the 2005 discovery of arsenic pollution in groundwater sources, however, Bangladesh’s water efforts have reached a major stumbling block. Deemed the “largest poisoning of a population in history” by the WHO, the arsenic exposure has affected up to 70 million people since its discovery. Studies have linked high exposure to cancer as well as various skin, lung, and cardiovascular diseases.

Since 97 percent of the rural population in Bangladesh uses groundwater tube wells as a drinking source, arsenic poisoning has greatly limited water sources. Experts say that for some communities, the only alternative water source is surface water, which is often wrought with disease carrying bacteria and chemical fertilizers. Treating the water chemically or digging deeper aquifers are two solutions, but are often too costly for rural communities. Other alternative sources such as rainwater harvesting have been explored, but are currently unreliable as a result of mosquitoes, bird feces, and unreliable weather.

Young man bathes from a community hand pump in Pallebi, Bangladesh. (Courtesy of

Diarrheal diseases such as cholera are prevalent especially in rural areas, where sewage treatment is rare and limited. Dr. Ed Ryan, a leading cholera researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, commented on the devastating impacts of diarrheal diseases to the HCGHR: “With recurrent episodes of diarrhea, kids get tropical enteropathy, where intestinal surfaces are inflamed and eroded. This leads to a lot of secondary effects, such as the ability to absorb nutrients, which plays into a vicious cycle with malnutrition. Diarrhea and malnutrition combined kill around 2.2 million globally each year, superseded only by respiratory infections.” Diarrheal diseases have also been linked to poor drug and vaccination absorption, as well as cognitive stunting, with studies showing that children with recurring diarrhea had lowered IQ of nearly 10 points.

With a population that has doubled in the past 30 years, Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. As a result, urban slums dot the landscape, and these communities lack sewage treatment systems. As Dr. Ryan explained to the HCGHR: “For most slums, there are regional centers with a communal latrine, which is an open pit or a squat pit. People may not use it, and many slums are not in the sewage grid. Sewer systems also run over due to the flood. It’s hard to keep good hygiene when you’re living on three feet of water.” Often, poor city dwellers have to buy water over the black market, often paying up to 15 times the original price.

There is much to be done. Community education should be a priority in order to sustainably address issues of hygiene and sanitation. Education initiatives, experts stress, must go hand in hand with cultural sensitivity and awareness. As Dr. Richard Cash of the Harvard School of Public Health states, “Water from other sources could give people better quality water bacteriologically, but it may not look as good, taste as good, smell as good, so people need to be convinced to use it.”

Boy with water pots in Pallebi, Bangladesh. (Courtesy of

Innovation to increase clean water access is also necessary. Dr. Ryan and other experts have found that even for those close to the municipal water supply, water may not be safe: “It may leave the facility perfectly fine, but people have done illegal tap ins, or the power has gone out, or there is a crack in the pipe in the street, so you can’t trust it coming out of your faucet.” Because of this, point-of-access treatment is now encouraged for both rural and urban areas. Different options such as filtering by ceramic, sand, ultraviolet light, and halogen chemicals should be chosen specific to the community’s needs.

Water plays an integral role not just as a drinking source; it is also an important part of the Bangladeshi culture and influences various industries in the country’s economy, such as agriculture, energy, and fishing. In this way, water plays a role not just in health, but also in the social and economic livelihood of the people. This, in turn, influences the overall standard of living of the population, which ultimately influences the population’s health. Because of these various interconnected factors, water usage must be dealt with wisely in order for it to be sustainable for the future.

Category: Development, Panorama, Spring 2011

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