Water in Crisis - Spotlight on Bangladesh

By: Saima Hedrick (Guest Writer)

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 great rivers (Brahmaputra, Meghna, and Ganges) all originate in other countries and the amount of water that eventually gets to Bangladesh is greatly limited by the booming populations of China and India. Only 7% of the total land that creates the watersheds for these rivers is in Bangladesh. Therefore the Bengalis have very little control over how much water they receive from these sources.

Compounding the problem is the rising salinity of the water, which has many contributing factors. One of these factors is the construction of the Farraka Barrage, a structure in India that diverts water from the Ganges to irrigate Indian soil. This decreases the flow of the Ganges thereby causing the salinity to increase. Salinity is also rising due to the sheer number of shrimp farms in various bodies of fresh water. Climate change has also caused rising sea levels which are claiming precious water from freshwater river deltas. This increase in salinity affects the soil and the quality of the ground water.

Not only is the potable water limited but the groundwater, which is used by nearly 90% of the population, is also contaminated with arsenic. According to the WHO, the levels of arsenic have contributed to thelargest mass poisoning in history, affecting an estimated30-35 million people in Bangladesh. Exposure to arsenic can cause cancer and severely damage many integral systems in the human body. Arsenic has been shown to be the cause of death for 1 out of every 5 people in Bangladesh.

As a result, the Bangladeshi government is trying to improve the infrastructure to improve rainwater capture and access to safe drinking water. Contaminated wells have been marked to warn the people away but the painted markers are fading and more than 100,000 safe water points have been created. New arsenic treatment technologies are also being investigated by the Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.

However, 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).

For more information, contact Saima at shedrick@gmu.edu.

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