The Water & Sanitation Crisis
Bangladesh’s water crisis affects both rural and urban areas, and is a matter of both water scarcity and water quality. While Bangladesh has made commendable progress in supplying safe water to its people, gross disparity in coverage still exists across the country. Latrine usage is very poor, averaging only 16% in the rural areas. Diarrheal diseases constitute a major health problem in Bangladesh, killing over 100,000 children each year. Thousands of episodes of diarrhea occur in children and adults each day. Diarrheal diseases have close biological and socio-economic links to the problems of malnutrition, poor maternal health, high fertility, and child survival.
In the late 1970s, approximately four million wells were drilled to replace the traditional contaminated surface water sources. The projects made significant headway, and mortality due to water-related diseases declined. However, in 1993, high arsenic concentrations were discovered in the groundwater of several wells in western Bangladesh. Long-term intake of high concentrations of arsenic from drinking water gives rise to a number of health problems, particularly skin disorders. Internal cancers have also been linked with arsenic in drinking water.
Although the arsenic crisis on an individual level is concerning, the more acute impacts are seen at the community level. In Bangladesh, many wells containing arsenic were closed without considering the possible immediate adverse affects of such interventions, particularly the increase in diarrheal illnesses. Once a well is painted red, signifying the water contains arsenic concentrations above the national standard, community members are no longer supposed to use it. However, when a well is closed, the community must seek other sources for drinking water, usually returning to the traditional unprotected water sources such as ponds or ditches, or walking to distant wells that do not contain arsenic. While reducing the effects of chronic arsenic exposure, such practices dramatically increase the risk of acute bacteriological contamination, leading to greater outbreaks of water-related diseases. These diseases especially affect children who are especially vulnerable to diarrheal diseases. The resulting impact of this dilemma has been a spike in child mortality.
The size of the urban population is increasing at alarming rates. The poor from the rural areas continue to migrate to the urban areas with the hope of being able to earn larger wages to support their families. Many of these people find shelter in Dhaka’s slum communities. These squatter communities are the most densely populated areas in the country. The enormous quantity of people living in such close quarters causes people living in these slums to have very poor health. Most people in these slums live on less than US $2 a day, and many live on less than US $1 a day. Acute poverty, overcrowding, poor housing, and unhealthy disposal of waste all play major roles in the water and sanitation crisis in the urban areas of Bangladesh.