The challenges to ensure safe water for all | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 20, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:43 PM, January 20, 2019

AL Election Manifesto

The challenges to ensure safe water for all

The Awami League Election Manifesto 2018 promises that many of the modern civic amenities I enjoy in Dhaka city or my ancestral home in Sylhet's Darga Mahallah will be available in every village. While I am not sure if all of the basic needs that I expect in these cities—such as running water, sanitary toilet, or electricity—will be available on demand in each of the villages by 2023-24, it is great to know that the new government will turn its attention to this matter and make it a priority.

Clean and safe drinking water is a basic human need and right. Clean water implies that water is free of E. coli and arsenic, 50 parts per billion. A recent World Bank report on water supply, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) warns that clean water remains a “stubborn gap in Bangladesh's development.” Only a little over 50 percent of households can access clean water that is within 30 minutes of walking distance. It is difficult to obtain reliable and current data on the number of deaths and the cost of illnesses that can be attributed to the lack of clean drinking water. In a study published in August 2018 in the prestigious “The Journal of Infectious Diseases”, the authors estimate that there are at least 100,000 cases and approximately 4,500 deaths each year from cholera. The majority of these deaths occur in children. According to WaterAid, a British NGO, “Over 2,000 children under 5 die a year from diarrhoea, caused by dirty water and poor toilets.” According to Water Project, another international NGO, “With a staggering 60 percent of the population that has to endure unsafe drinking water, the nation is in danger.”

In an op-ed published in this newspaper and based on the above-mentioned WASH study, Syed Mansur Hashim reports that 75 million people, roughly half of our population, are at the risk of contracting the most serious diseases because they are drinking unsafe water.  The report cites two seemingly contradictory case studies of two children living in very different environments but having a common issue: both are affected by unsafe drinking water contaminated by E. coli bacteria. I thought I ought to share a paragraph from the WB study with my readers since it paints the contrasting scenario so vividly:

“Shilpi lives in a small house in a farming village near the Bay of Bengal. She has just begun primary school, though both her parents are illiterate. Her home recently received its first electric power but remains without running water. Therefore, her afterschool chores include walking half a kilometre to collect water from a well by a cow pen. The water is contaminated with E. coli bacteria. Nadia lives in a flat in Bharidhara, an affluent neighbourhood of Dhaka. Her parents are university graduates who hold well-paying jobs. She has just begun primary school. Her home has air conditioning. Hot and cold running water are available at the turn of a tap. The water is still contaminated with E. coli bacteria.”

So what accounts for this state of affairs? The primary source of drinking water for almost 90 percent of the population is groundwater extracted by some form of tube well. “However, tube wells do not necessarily filter out all contaminants, cannot always withstand natural disasters, and are poorly regulated. As a result, many citizens are sometimes unknowingly consuming unsafe water with either faecal bacteria, arsenic, salinity, or other contaminants.” When we switched from drinking surface water—from ponds, rivers, and streams—to groundwater many decades ago, it proved to be a double-edged sword. The transition from surface water to groundwater played an important role in the rapid decline in morbidity and mortality from waterborne diseases.

The downside of this switch has been that our groundwater remains “stubbornly contaminated” with dangerous microbes, heavy metals, or salt. The World Health Organization (WHO) alerts that 35 million people in Bangladesh are exposed on a daily basis to elevated levels of arsenic in the water they drink, which will eventually threaten their health while shortening their life expectancy. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) states that its figures show that approximately 43,000 people die each year from arsenic-related illnesses in Bangladesh. Its research finds that, depending on the progress of ending exposure, between 1 and 5 million of the 90 million children estimated to be born between 2000 and 2030 will eventually die due to the exposure to arsenic in drinking water.

When you come to think of it, many of the 21 election-time pledges made by Awami League are closely tied to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of the UN. Take the case of SDG6, which calls for governments to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” SDG6 has eight targets—six of them are to be achieved by the year 2030, one by the year 2020, and one has no target year. Each of the targets also has one or two indicators which will be used to measure progress. In total, there are 11 indicators for SDG6.

The first three targets relate to drinking water supply and sanitation. The SDGs are also interlinked. WASH experts have stated that without progress on Goal 6, the other goals and targets cannot be achieved. In other words, accomplishing the other SDGs will require assuring clean water and sanitation for all as stated in SDG6.

In a World Bank blog, co-authored by the Principal Coordinator for SDG Affairs at the Prime Minister's Office, it is mentioned that “Bangladesh has still a long way to go to meet the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of providing universal access to clean water and sustainable sanitation by 2030.” But how do we fix these problems? It behoves the government to closely examine the WASH study for a list of issues that bedevil our water and sanitation sectors. For example, the study indicates that financial allocation for the overall sector development is insufficient. The WASH budget, as a proportion of national and LGD budget, has been declining since 2007. The estimated total budget gap is about 47 percent to meet just the government's envisioned water targets by 2025.

“An appropriate mix of policy changes, gradual and time-bound institutional changes, implementation of regulations and effective citizens' participation to ensure improved water quality and maintain service standards is needed to overcome many of these constraints to achieve the goal of safe universal access.” 

Experts have also called for increased budgetary allocation for disposing of waste in urban centres. Another study recommends that “in order to make a significant impact, the government needs to reinvigorate the arsenic policies established in the 90s and change the maximum exposure amount from 50 micrograms to 10 micrograms (as recommended by the WHO).”


Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist, and Senior Research Fellow, International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank in Boston, USA. His new memoir, Fairy Tales: Stories from My Life, will be published by Jonantik soon.


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