Facing Water Challenges in Bangladesh at the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna Rivers: A WWDR3 Case Study

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Recurring water-related hazards, declining freshwater availability and poisoning from naturally occurring arsenic in groundwater have undermined the health and livelihoods of millions in this densely populated country. Climate change might further aggravate this situation. Efforts to institutionalize integrated water resources management will play a significant role in reducing the burden of persistent poverty, especially among rural populations.


Focus Areas

Water supply and sanitation, IWRM

Geographic Scope




Background and Significance

The Experience: Challenges and Solutions

Disasters and Hazards

Bangladesh is prone to water-related hazards such as floods, cyclones, storm surges, flash floods, droughts, riverbank erosion and rain-induced landslides. In addition, salinity intrusion and waterlogging affect nearly one-third of the country in the south-west. The country suffered approximately 170 disasters between 1870 and 1998. Every year some 20% to 25% of the territory is inundated during the monsoon season (WMO/GWP, 2008). The frequency of major floods, covering up to 70% of the country, is growing. During the 2007 flood and cyclonic storm, the death toll exceeded 300, with 8 million people displaced and serious consequences for the national economy and people’s livelihoods. From 1970 to 2008, 12 major cyclones killed more than 620,000 people and affected 45 million others (MoFDM, 2008).

Because of the almost flat terrain, flood prevention through flow regulation is not an option for Bangladesh. A flood forecasting and warning system established in the 1970s covers all flood-prone areas and provides real-time flood information, with early warning for lead times of 24 and 48 hours. The country’s flood management strategies have continuously evolved over the last 50 years, so that now more emphasis is put on other non-structural means of mitigating floods, including controlling development in flood plains and wetlands through legislation and involving communities in flood management (WMO/GWP, 2008).

Bangladesh is also vulnerable to recurrent droughts, such as those that occurred in 1973, 1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1989, 1992, 1994 and 1995. The droughts of 1994 and 1995 in north-western Bangladesh led to a 3.5 million tonne shortfall in rice production.

There is potential for regulating river flow in upstream countries to reduce flooding, especially during the monsoon season, and to augment water availability in the dry season, as well as to maintain river levels to facilitate inland waterway navigation and sustain ecosystems. A better regulated flow could also reduce salinity intrusion caused by the decline in freshwater availability in the dry season. This, however, would require strengthened regional cooperation, which has not yet been realized. River bank erosion takes a terrible toll on people, property and infrastructure. Major rivers, including the Jamuna, Ganges and Padma, consume several thousand hectares of flood plain per year and carry huge sediment loads. As a result, riverbank erosion and siltation occur frequently. An estimated 100 km2 of land per year has been lost to erosion over the past 20 years. The mostly rural victims of river erosion sometimes lose all their personal belongings and property. Bangladesh also loses several kilometres of roads, railways and flood embankments annually to shifting waterways.

Response efforts for water-related natural disasters still focus primarily on emergency relief rather than on seeking ways to reduce vulnerability to natural hazards. There is a need to strengthen the awareness that risk reduction and disaster prevention make better economic sense than responding to consequences through emergency relief.

Health and water-related issues

The unreliable availability and fluctuating quality of surface water resources prompted the authorities to start developing a groundwater supply system in the 1970s, installing wells in an effort to provide safe drinking water. Bangladesh now has some 9 million wells, of which about half are public wells installed by government agencies (Jones, 2000).

Wells made it possible for about 97% of the rural population to have access to bacteriologically safe water by 2000 and helped lower the infant mortality rate from 156 per thousand in 1990 to 69 per thousand in 2006 (UNICEF, 2008). Unfortunately, particularly in shallow aquifers, the groundwater often contains arsenic at levels that can cause poisoning (arsenicosis). Only about 74% of the rural population has access to arsenic-free water. The naturally occurring arsenic is a major concern for drinking water supply and for animal husbandry and irrigation. It is also a major development constraint in coastal aquifers. In 61 of the country’s 64 districts, groundwater arsenic levels are above the permissible limit. It is estimated that between 25 million and 35 million people depend on wells that expose them to the risk of arsenicosis.

The main cause of death in Bangladesh, however, remains poverty-related infectious diseases, which are exacerbated by malnutrition. A marked gender differential in health persists. About 70% of mothers suffer from nutritional deficiency anaemia and over 90% of children have some degree of malnutrition.

Pollution and environmental degradation

Water bodies in Bangladesh receive a large amount of pollution in the form of municipal, industrial and agricultural waste, including pesticides and fertilizers. There is also pollution originating in the upstream parts of the major river basins.

The National Water Policy and National Water Management Plan stress the importance of preserving the natural environment as a condition for the socioeconomic development of the country. Both state that care must be taken to conserve goods and services provided by ecosystems, including fisheries and wildlife biodiversity. Yet the country’s rivers, flood plains, mangroves and natural lakes continue to deteriorate. The situation is mainly due to poor enforcement of regulations and lack of integration with development activities in other sectors.

The degradation of water resources has a particularly detrimental effect on poor communities that are highly dependent on ecosystems for their livelihoods. In part to address these challenges, the Ministry of Environment and Forest supported the Environment Conservation Act of 1995 and the Bangladesh Environmental Regulation of 1997. These form the basis of modern pollution control in Bangladesh. The revised industrial policy of 2005 also recognizes the need to control pollution as stipulated under the Environment Conservation Act. However, pollution control legislation has only gradually been implemented.

Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) have been carried out in Bangladesh since the late 1990s to minimize the adverse effects of development projects. However, a lack of resources and capacity often hampers the process: most EIA consultants are poorly trained, developers lack the resources to conduct EIAs appropriately and there is inadequate awareness at decision-making level of the benefits of conducting EIAs.

Essentially, although significant progress has been made, poverty continues to plague the people of Bangladesh, particularly in rural areas. They depend mainly on land for subsistence and are severely affected by seasonal variation in surface water availability, frequent floods, droughts and cyclones, which cause substantial socio-economic damage. The effects of potential climate change are likely to worsen the situation, especially for the rural poor and the disadvantaged, who already bear the brunt of the consequences. To prosper in the 21st century, Bangladesh needs to improve the way it manages its water resources internally while continuing to work towards better regional cooperation that can offer benefits for all basin countries. A combination of these factors will also play a pivotal role in key economic sectors and in breaking the vicious circle of poverty.

Results and Impact

Lessons for Replication

Testimonies and Stakeholder Perceptions


See also

Aquastat. 1999. Review of water resources statistics by country. Rome, Food and Agriculture Organization. http://www.fao.org/nr/water/aquastat/ water_res/index.stm (Accessed November 2008.)

Asian Development Bank (ADB). 2004. Bangladesh Country Paper. www.adb.org/Water/NWSAB/2004/Bangladesh_Country_Paper.pdf (Accessed 22 November 2008.)

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). 2003. Selected Indicators of Food and Agriculture Development in Asia-Pacific Region 1992–2002. FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Bangkok. http://www.fao.org/DOCREP/004/AD452E/AD452E00.HTM (RAP Publication 2003/10. Accessed 22 November 2008.) Institute of Water Modelling/DHI. Forthcoming. Bangladesh Case Study Report, executive summary.

Jones, E. M. 2000. Arsenic 2000: An Overview of the Arsenic Issue in Bangladesh. Dhaka, WaterAid Bangladesh, December 2000. (Draft Final Report.)

Ministry of Agriculture. 2004. http://www.moa.gov.bd/statistics/ Table5.11_TAI.htm. Department of Agricultural Extension and Water Development Board. (Accessed November 2008.) Ministry of Food and Disaster Management (MoFDM). 2008. http://www.mofdm.gov.bd/sidr%20damage.htm (Accessed November 2008.)

UNICEF. 2008. http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/bangladesh_ bangladesh_statistics.html (Accessed December 2008.)

WHO/UNICEF. 2008. www.wssinfo.org/en/36_san_leastDev.html. Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation. (Accessed December 2008.)

World Meteorological Organization/Global Water Partnership (WMO/GWP). 2008. http://www.apfm.info/pdf/case_studies/bangladesh.pdf. Associated Programme on Flood Management. (Accessed November 2008.)

External Resources


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