Arsenic and the Ganges Delta: Water Crisis in Bangladesh

29 June 2021 Patrick Rabbitte, FDI Associate

In the face of a water crisis started by arsenic poisoning of groundwater and further compounded by climate change-induced salinity, the Bangladeshi Government will need to act swiftly to prevent a future surge of climate refugees.

 

Background

Bangladesh’s supply of potable water has been steadily eroded, as a combination of extreme reliance on tube and bore wells plus an exceptional vulnerability to climate change have swiftly contaminated a vast swathe of its water supplies. Significant amounts of inland rural water wells have been contaminated by arsenic and other pollutants, and climate change has seen salt water from storm surges and cyclones destroy accessible coastal water sources along the low-lying Ganges Delta on which Bangladesh is situated. If left unattended, the crisis could be exacerbated to the extent that a significant climate refugee issue could develop, whereas if it is mitigated it could significantly stabilise a vulnerable nation.

 

Comment

With a growing population and increasing vulnerability to climate change, Bangladesh has seen a growing pressure put upon its water reserves. Since 2018, when it ranked sixth on the  Global Climate Risk Index, access to drinkable water has  devolved into an even greater crisis regarding the inland surface water’s high levels of arsenic, owing to both man-made and natural causes. The effects of climate change have also extensively polluted coastal water sources with salt, even in wells sunk deep beneath the upper water table.

The water bodies in Bangladesh, especially in inland areas, are increasingly unsuitable for human consumption without proper treatment. Heavy metal contamination of bore and tube wells, pesticide contamination of surface water and bacteriological contamination are all threats to urban and rural communities. Among those issues, notably, the heavy metal arsenic is being found in groundwater at an alarming rate across the country. That finding is forcing Bangladesh’s water issue into a crisis, as 97 per cent of the total population of Bangladesh’s rural areas depend on these polluted groundwater sources for drinking water, in a state where 35 to 77 million out of the total population of over 160 million have already been chronically exposed to arsenic in the first decade of the millennium. In the twenty-first century, 8.5 per cent of the total deaths in Bangladesh are caused by these water-related issues. Twenty million Bangladeshis have consumed water contaminated with arsenic for more than two decades, according to Human Rights Watch. The issue has only developed into a crisis because Bangladesh has failed to take basic precautions against a problem which, among the rural poor, kills an estimated 43,000 Bangladeshis every year.

The widespread arsenic poisoning has only exacerbated another rapidly-developing shortage of clean water resources, those more intricately linked with climatic factors. Increasing temperatures in the surrounding ocean have caused Bangladesh to suffer some of the fastest recorded sea level rises in the world, with the resulting storm surges and more extreme weather pushing walls of water hundreds of kilometres into the rivers of the low-lying Ganges Delta. At the same time, melting glaciers in the Himalayas, which hold the third-largest body of snow on Earth, have vastly increased the volume of water that flows into the deltas of Bangladesh, with India’s policy of diverting water during the dry season and releasing it during the monsoon season further exacerbating the problem. As exposed as it is to these most damaging effects of climate change, Bangladesh has suffered from effects such as inland and coastal flooding, low flows, droughts and the resulting effects of salinity intrusion on groundwater. Due to this rapidly increasing salinity, sources of fresh water like surface water sources and tube wells are decreasing day by day. Already, the intruding sea has contaminated groundwater, which supplies drinking water for coastal regions, and degraded farmland, rendering it less fertile and barren. Rural residents are being forced to drink contaminated water, which is leading to an increase in diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery and jaundice. Women and girls, who are traditionally responsible for collecting water for use at home, are especially vulnerable to those effects.

While this may seem like a remote issue for Australia, and expensive to actively manage than not, the future impacts of the water crisis are clear. In 2007, a World Bank report estimated that 300,000 to 400,000 migrants arrive in Dhaka each year, with “salinity intrusion” a major factor for the exodus from the country’s coastal areas. A future deluge of climate refugees from a Bangladeshi water crisis, if left unaddressed, would only serve to destabilise the South-East Asian and Subcontinental regions, both of which are cornerstones in Australian trade and foreign policy, as well as increasing the volume of refugees arriving on these shores. Addressing the issue of arsenic poisoning in inland wells could provide an effective boost to Bangladeshi development. A reduction in the levels of arsenic present in humans has been shown to improve performance in a non-verbal intelligence test by 24 per cent. Similarly, arsenic poisoning also caused lower schooling attainment, especially among younger Bangladeshi men who were exposed to the arsenic at an early age. The impact on the greater economy and employment Bangladesh is apparent. If the amount of retained arsenic in their bodies were halved, researchers found, the number of young men who took on high-skilled labour, including in medicine or business management, would grow by 24 per cent.

Achieving this goal is, of course, stymied by irregularities between government agencies and policies, with the procedures to fix them lacking both funding as well as administrative and institutional capability. This leads to impediments to environmental law through both outdated existing legislation and a lack of general knowledge in the population, all blanketed by endemic political corruption. It remains to be seen whether or not Bangladesh will resolve its own water issues, or if outside intervention on a large scale will be necessary.

About the Author

Patrick Rabbitte is a Perth-based FDI Associate.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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