Stop! Collaborate and Listen: Water Quality Cohesion in Bangladesh is Missing

Solid waste derived from human factors layer over a river in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo uploaded by Sk Hasan Ali, Source: Shutterstock
Figure 1. Water is a necessity for life, but only a small percentage on Earth is available for human use. Source: EarthHow1
Water is necessary for every living thing on Earth, and the human race uses water for drinking, irrigation, and sanitation. The Earth’s surface is composed of 71% water. Of that, 97% of the water is located in oceans, too salty to drink or be used for irrigation. That leaves only 3% as fresh water. Even for this potentially drinkable water, most is not available for human use because it is locked up in inaccessible environments like glaciers, soils, the atmosphere, or areas too deep underground to reach. The human population is left with only 0.5% of the total water budget as available, usable, fresh water (Figure 1). 2 With such a limited water supply world wide, developing countries like Bangladesh that harbor growing and prosperous areas full of water sources, need to take extreme care in managing this precious resource, especially when booming megacities like Dhaka continue to expand in population and urbanization.

Nestled within a corner adjacent to northeastern India, spanning 57,300 square miles, lies one of the most densely populated countries in Southeast Asia, Bangladesh. The population of Bangladesh is spread out, with roughly 114 million people (76%) living in rural areas, and 36.4 million (24%) living in urban areas, with the largest concentration in the capitol, Dhaka.3 It is classified as a “riverine” country, with a vast amount of rivers and streams that flow from the higher elevations in the northern part of the country down through the rural and urban areas to the south. Four major river systems allow 230 rivers to interconnect throughout the land (Figure 2) which gives 97% of the Bangladesh population access to water. With 20 million residents, the mega-city of Dhaka relies on major rivers such as the Buriganga to sustain their existence. Unfortunately, these water systems are in peril from human-generated factors such as agriculture, industry, mining, power generation, unsanitary waste disposal practices, and other human factors. These factors affect the public health with high amounts of metal contaminants like arsenic, and bacteria such as E. Coli causing increased impacts to human health, and even death.4

Figure 2. The roughly 230 interconnected river systems in Bangladesh. There are four major river systems within Bangladesh (the Brahmaputra-Jamuna, the Ganges-Padma, the Surma-Meghna, and the Chittagong Region river system) that allow 97% of the population access to water. Source Banglapedia.5
Bangladesh was previously a country stricken with poverty and famine. Since gaining its independence from Pakistan in 1971, it has become a case study for economic development.6 The growth in its economy is due to its industrialization and exportation of ready-made garments (RMG) beginning in the 1980s. According to an article written by the International Finance Corporation, Bangladesh’s garment industry accounts for 80% of earnings from its export revenue, resulting in an annual rise from $19 billion to to $34 billion within the past seven years.7 The growth in the economy is largely due to structural reforms that took place to remove state control and allow privatization of the garment industry. Because of these reforms, the number of industries within Bangladesh has risen from 134 RMG factories employing 400,000 in 1983 – 1984 to 5,876 RMG factories employing 4 million workers (Figure 3).8 These RMG factories have become the foundation of Bangladesh’s economy, but are also the biggest contributor to the surface and groundwater pollution of Bangladesh affecting millions of residents in Bangladesh.

Figure 3. Graphic illustration depicting the rise of Bangladesh’s ready made garment industry from its beginning 1984 to 2012 along with the rise in employees within the industry. Uploaded by Sanjay Kathuria, Source ResearchGate9
These RMG factories have become the backbone of Bangladesh’s economy, but are also the biggest contributor to the surface water and groundwater pollution that affects millions of Bangladeshis through untreated effluents. According to recent studies, in the years of 2012 – 2016 tannery and textile factories used up to 1.8 billion m³ of groundwater a year in Bangladesh.10 High quantities of withdrawal of fresh, potentially drinkable groundwater is used to wash, dye, and finish the products. During this process from start to finish, various chemicals are used and accumulated effluents are generated and processed into effluent treatment plants (ETPs) before being discharged into the nearby river systems.11 Unfortunately, these ETPs aren’t monitored efficiently (Figure 4). Lack of monitoring results in the ETPs to routinely violate government standards, with up to 56 million tons of solid waste and 500,000 tons of toxic sludge discharged into surface waters.12

Figure 4. Ready made garment industries dispose of waster water through pipes that lead to the nearby rivers. Effluents are captured in effluent treatment plants, but many of these ETPs don’t perform effectively due to low monitoring of these systems. Uploaded by Toa55 Source Shutterstock13
How can this amount of pollution be discharged into the water systems? In Bangladesh, water management is through four different types of organizations: community representatives (industrial companies), civil society organizations (academic researchers), non-government (non-profit organizations) and government management agencies that effectively manage pollution in the industrial, household, and agricultural sectors. Unfortunately within these organizations there is no cohesion, resulting in a deficiency in manpower, and a lack of clarity that leads to ineffective coordination in managing water quality. Some organizations state they are working under time constraints, where they are given extensive projects to complete within a timeframe that is too short to effectively perform a quality job with the available manpower. While trying to plan these projects in certain areas, they are also handed small, basic side tasks, such as attaching an apparatus to a water pipe to collect effluents. When it comes to clarity with respect to reporting responsibilities, some areas include a multitude of organizations that claim jurisdiction over managing the water quality. For example, in Dhaka, there are 16 different ministries at the government level involved in fecal sludge management. The confusion surrounding the lack of one clear controlling authority, results in unclear responsibilities, weak lines of communication, and ineffective planning.14

In relation to the RMG industries that contribute most of the pollution into the water systems, where does this lack of monitoring come from? Many of the lower tier organizations such as the non-government and civil societies highlight the opaqueness of accountability the government holds the private industrial sectors resulting in pressure put on organizations like the Department of Environment (DoE). The DoE is dedicated to monitoring, evaluating, and enforcement. Although the agency plays a pivotal role in managing the compliance with respect to ETPs, it is often pressured to report that high amount of effluents are being captured by the ETPs, instead of the ETPs not performing optimally and requiring the industry to shut down for repairs. The potential for a conflict of interest between the industrial sectors and government agencies further denotes the lack of cohesion amongst the water management organizations and results in inefficient implementations of strategies including highlighting areas that need to be reevaluated.15

However grim it might seem for the water quality in Bangladesh, many of the management agencies look forward to continuing progress that began in 2009 with the re-election of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (Figure 5). Standing on a platform devoted to restoring Bangladesh’s water quality while retaining its economic growth, she noted that “Conservation and protection of the environment is a time-honoured ‘responsibility’, not just a necessity.”16 In 2017 she gave a speech at the Dhaka Water Summit that highlighted some of the accomplishments she has overseen during her term in office. The rate of unsanitary human waste disposal in 2003 was 42%, but by 2017 the rate of unsanitary waste disposal was below 1%. She has taken an approach to restore surface water and reduce the amount of groundwater being used, resulting in 7,000 ponds being desalinated by sand filtering, with 4,700 reservoirs constructed to catch and preserve rain water. Plans to build reservoirs in industrial and housing areas are underway, with the installation of rainwater harvesting systems filtration systems for wastes and polluted water.17 Another breakthrough is the backing of the Bangladesh High Court that has ordered 231 out-of-compliance factories to shut down and repair systems to meet DoE clean water requirements18 The fact that the Bangladesh High Court has ordered factories to shut down until operations can meet DoE water quality regulations shows that collaboration is increasing among the agencies that hold power to promote change.

As progress continues and water quality increases, clean drinking water can be provided to the population of Bangladesh. This steady record of improvement showcases the importance of interagency collaboration, and how all individuals will need to adapt in order to maintain access to clean water. Although there is a long journey ahead to clean all the water in Bangladesh, the progress made today shows that collaboration is no longer missing, it is beginning.

Figure 5. Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina was reelected into office as of January 2009 and continues to presently serve. While in office she has made some beneficial strides in returning the quality of Bangladesh’s water and continues to develop partnerships to continue in water quality management. Photo uploaded by Bayazid Akter, Source: Shutterstock19
  1. “How Much Water Is on Earth? – Earth How.” n.d. Accessed November 4, 2021. https://earthhow.com/how-much-water-is-on-earth/.
  2. “Water Facts – Worldwide Water Supply | ARWEC| CCAO | Area Offices | California-Great Basin | Bureau of Reclamation.” n.d. Accessed October 29, 2021. https://www.usbr.gov/mp/arwec/water-facts-ww-water-sup.html.
  3. Hossain, Md Amir. 2017. “Bureaucratic System in Bangladesh.” Review of Public Administration and Management 05 (02). https://doi.org/10.4172/2315-7844.1000214.
  4. Hasan, Md. Khalid, Abrar Shahriar, and Kudrat Ullah Jim. 2019. “Water Pollution in Bangladesh and Its Impact on Public Health.” Heliyon 5 (8): e02145. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2019.e02145.
  5. “River – Banglapedia.” n.d. Accessed November 4, 2021. https://en.banglapedia.org/index.php/River.
  6. “Bangladesh Case Study: Economic Development.” n.d. Economic Development, 53.
  7. “Safety First: Bangladesh Garment Industry Rebounds.” n.d. Accessed October 29, 2021. https://www.ifc.org/wps/wcm/connect/NEWS_EXT_CONTENT/IFC_External_Corporate_Site/News+and+Events/News/Insights/Bangladesh-garment-industry.
  8. Islam, Md. Saiful. 2021. “Ready-Made Garments Exports Earning and Its Contribution to Economic Growth in Bangladesh.” GeoJournal 86 (3): 1301–9. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10708-019-10131-0.
  9. Kathuria, Sanjay, and Mariem Mezghenni Malouche. 2016. Toward New Sources of Competitiveness in Bangladesh: Key Insights of the Diagnostic Trade Integration Study. Washington, DC:  World Bank. https://doi.org/10.1596/978-1-4648-0647-6.
  10. Hossain, Laila, and Mohidus Samad Khan. 2020. “Water Footprint Management for Sustainable Growth in the Bangladesh Apparel Sector.” Water 12 (10): 2760. https://doi.org/10.3390/w12102760.
  11. Restiani, Phillia. n.d. “WATER GOVERNANCE MAPPING REPORT: TEXTILE INDUSTRY WATER USE IN BANGLADESH,” 49.
  12. Islam, Md., M. Uddin, Shafi Tareq, Mashura Shammi, Abdul Kamal, Tomohiro Sugano, Masaaki Kurasaki, Takeshi Saito, Shunitz Tanaka, and Hideki Kuramitz. 2015. “Alteration of Water Pollution Level with the Seasonal Changes in Mean Daily Discharge in Three Main Rivers around Dhaka City, Bangladesh.” Environments 2 (4): 280–94. https://doi.org/10.3390/environments2030280.
  13. “Water Pollution River Because Industrial Not Stock Photo (Edit Now) 753258850.” n.d. Accessed November 4, 2021. https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/water-pollution-river-because-industrial-not-753258850.
  14. Lindamood, Danielle, Derek Armitage, Dilruba Fatima Sharmin, Roy Brouwer, Susan J. Elliott, Jennifer A. Liu, and Mizan R. Khan. 2021. “Assessing the Capacity for Adaptation and Collaboration in the Context of Freshwater Pollution Management in Dhaka, Bangladesh.” Environmental Science & Policy 120 (June): 102. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2021.02.015.
  15. Lindamood, Danielle, Derek Armitage, Dilruba Fatima Sharmin, Roy Brouwer, Susan J. Elliott, Jennifer A. Liu, and Mizan R. Khan. 2021. “Assessing the Capacity for Adaptation and Collaboration in the Context of Freshwater Pollution Management in Dhaka, Bangladesh.” Environmental Science & Policy 120 (June): 104–5. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2021.02.015.
  16. “HE Sheikh Hasina | Champions of the Earth.” n.d. Accessed October 30, 2021. https://www.unep.org/championsofearth/laureates/2015/he-sheikh-hasina.
  17. Hasina, Sheihk. 2017. “Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim.” https://pmo.portal.gov.bd/sites/default/files/files/pmo.portal.gov.bd/pm_speech/f02109f4_3886_452d_9a57_ab1cdc5dc43b/dhaka_water_conf_290717_eng.pdf.
  18. “Bangladesh Court Orders 231 Factories Closed to Save River.” n.d. Accessed October 30, 2021. https://apnews.com/article/669408ee151214f18b0fa74533d9674c.
  19. “Portrait Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Rally Stock Photo (Edit Now) 1707339541.” n.d. Accessed November 4, 2021. https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/portrait-prime-minister-sheikh-hasina-rally-1707339541.

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13 Responses

  1. This article was super informative on the water issue in Bangladesh, but I also think similar things are happening in other countries. It was great to read that conditions are improving. I didn’t realize that the textile industry takes up so much water, and I wonder if this issue is only getting worse globally with the increase in the consumption of fast fashion.

  2. A very well-written article about a very important topic! I like your pictures as they let us see the magnitude of this problem. I think you did a very good job in showcasing how Bangladesh has worked hard to help the environment and how others should follow/learn their strategies. It is very impressive to see Bangladesh’s growth. I also think you’re title is really good and captivating to the audience.

  3. The article you gave us was very detailed and well written. You pointed out what the issue was, gave examples on how the problem started and then proceeded to give solutions. Water takes a big part in our environment without clean water we can get sick, the water life could die and overall the chances of our world or global warming could end sooner if we don’t take care of our environment.

  4. I enjoyed every piece of this article! I learned a lot about the world outside and the pollution problem that Bangladesh faces.

  5. I enjoyed reading this article as well as viewing the images. It is unfortunate that some people are living in areas with bad water. At least there is progress being made to increase the water quality in Bangladesh.

  6. I loved this very detailed and informative article about water quality. There are unfortunately a lot of corporations that care about the benefits through money rather than the people who live in the bad water carrying environments. I am hopeful that change to better the water system will help many many people now but especially in the future. Very thought provoking article over water.

  7. A very informative and interesting article. I enjoyed the images provided because getting the chance to see whats going on in other countries always grab my attention. The fact that Bangladesh has done so much to better their country by working together is very impressive. Overall great article, I really enjoyed getting the chance to read this article.

  8. It is almost humiliating how a smaller country that has only existed since 1971 has responded better to our modern climate crisis than the superpower that is the US. A well written article that shows a problem in Bangladesh, but also shows the progress being made. If only the same could be said for the United States, but with how much power industry holds over US politics, I worry that such change won’t be possible until it is too late.

  9. Firstly one of the things that caught my attention in this article is the quality of the pictures and graphs, they match perfectly with the text. I enjoyed reading this article because I think that we should discuss more bad hygiene conditions. Many of the global health issues we face today, such as infectious illnesses and lack of hygiene, are linked to decreased biodiversity and ecological degradation. We are not above any species, which is why the destruction of the earth is our own death.

  10. I loved how detailed this article was. It is sad to see how big corporations/ companies care more about the money of than the effects it has on the environment but I am glad that Bangladesh has taken the opportunity to work together in bettering its water system and reducing the waste that went into this. Hopefully, this long journey will be successful for the long run.

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