Dhaka, Bangladesh, on its way to clean water but with a long road to go

by Robert Mitchell, originally posted on February 11, 2017


Water is flowing plentifully into Bangladesh, but all is not hydraulically well in the 8th largest country in the world. With nearly half of its population exposed to unsafe water and slow water-poisoning, Bangladesh is firmly tackling one of its most endemic problems. But it will be no easy task, and providing safe water to all Bangladeshi will find most of its hampers within the country, not outside. 

With its rain season, and the slopes of central Asian mountains, Bangladesh has all the water it could hope for, sometimes too much. But national and international observers, for years, have been blowing whistles and raising flags regarding the very unsafe composition of the water. While it is agreed upon that almost all of the population has access to water, it is considered that barely half has access to clean water. The WHO estimates that « 97% of the people of Bangladesh have access to water and only 40% percent have proper sanitation. With a staggering 60% of the population that has to endure unsafe drinking water, the nation is in danger. The availability of this water greatly fluctuates throughout the year as the warmer season brings massive amounts of water in frequent monsoons and the cooler season brings drought. The infrastructure cannot adequately deal with the barrage of water in monsoon season so the water is not saved for the drier months. Of the water that is available, over 80 percent is used for agriculture»

The causes are not only Bangladeshi, although environmental regulations will be part of the upcoming project. Almost all of the water available in Bangladesh (the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna) flow through India and China before arriving into Bangladesh. In both these countries, soaring demography and rising industrialization, often unfettered with environmental regulations, have caused downstream waters to be contaminated with all sorts of health-endangering chemicals. In a 2016 study produced by the Chinese Water Resources Ministry itself, it was revealed that « The Water Resources Ministry analyzed samples drawn in January from 2,103 wells used for monitoring in the country’s major eastern flatland watersheds […] The ministry said that of those samples, 32.9% were classed as suitable only for industrial and agricultural use, while 47.3% were unfit for human consumption of any type. »  And the Indian side is even worse.

The Bangladeshi government, headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Rasina, has therefore launched an international request for proposals, in view of creating a partnership which will bring clean and safe water to the most vulnerable area of the country, Dhaka. Within the framework of the Dhaka Environmentally Sustainable Water Supply Project (DESWSP), Veolia was retained by Bangladesh’s Dhaka Water Supply  and Sewerage Authority (DWASA) as it was the only contender to offer a technically suitable solution. The project is backed by the Asian Development Bank and the European Investment Bank, two independent and financially powerful partners which will ensure the project is duly carried out. The aim of this project is triple: it must ensure health security, demographic development, and economic growth.

Indeed, Bangladesh has greatly reduced it child mortality rate over the past half-century (from 240 per thousand in the 1960s to about 40 in our decade), but it is still greatly superior to western countries, much of which is caused by unsafe water. Access to clean and safe water was an important point of tension in Bangladesh, as in many developing countries, with many citizens in rural areas claiming to having their health jeopardized in favor of the rich urban parts of the country. Finally, with 80% of the country’s water being used for agriculture, access to clean and safe water would have a dramatically positive impact on the country agricultural output, a well-known indicator of macro-economic performance. Concerning the Dhaka Environmentally Sustainable Water Supply Project, the European Investment bank details in a press release: “In line with the European Union mandate guiding the EIB lending mandate for Asia, the project will promote the development of social and economic infrastructure; it will improve availability, quality and reliability of water supply services in Dhaka, with positive health and environmental benefits for the population.”

David Zetland, senior water economist  for Aguanomics, points out « The fourth economic category for water classifies it as a public good, a term that may remind one of “for the public good” but actually refers to the way that everyone can enjoy a public good without fear that one person’s enjoyment denies pleasure to someone else. Most water in the environment – waterfalls, rainbows, glaciers and the ocean – falls into this category. We can play in it or look at it without end, all of us. » The enjoyment of this public good will be now the new step in Bangladesh’s economic transition.

However, it is a safe bet to say that if fixing the water problem in Bangladesh were easy, it would have been done a long time ago. Once again, the government will probably have to fight off its own administration’s grip on the strategic resource which is water. Whether the administration of water be centralized or decentralized, it hasn’t worked actually. So, the government is letting a private partner in, to help solve the crisis. During PM Sheikh Hasina’s first premiership, she had to tear away the telecommunications sector from the administration to enable it to develop. Once more, the government will have to rise to the challenge, as the PM says, «to ensure safe water for hundred percent of the population”.

Water is a democratic resource. It is unreasonable to hope for a stable society and a thriving economy when nearly half the population in the country is risking water poisoning every day. With clean water, benefiting both the population and the agriculture, Bangladesh will have a much better chance at harnessing the great economic upheaval of its two giant neighbors, India and China, and become the economic key-player it has the potential to be.

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