Background of Our Work in Bangladesh

About Bangladesh

The People’s Republic of Bangladesh is a country in South Asia bordered by India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Bhutan. With over 160 million people, Bangladesh is the world’s eighth-most populous country and is also one of the most densely populated countries. Rapid population growth has created considerable water-related issues in the country, as have the two biggest drivers of economic growth: agriculture and textile manufacturing.

Recognizing water as a critical resource for basic human needs, economic development, and a healthy ecosystem, the current government has increased its focus on Integrated Water Resources Management in the country. This has resulted in the adoption of the Bangladesh Water Act of 2013 and in a strong interest in the multi-stakeholder approach to water resources management as advocated by the 2030 WRG. The 2030 WRG has co-signed the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 (BDP 2100) MoU along with the Government of Bangladesh, the Government of the Netherlands, the World Bank, and the International Finance Corporation. Bangladesh is the largest delta in the world, and the BDP 2100 aims to realize a sustainable, long-term strategy and plan, agreed with all stakeholders, for an optimum level of water safety and food security as well as economic growth.

Water Challenges

Located downstream of three large basins, namely the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Meghna, Bangladesh faces immense challenges in the water sector due to population increase, land use changes, surface water pollution, upstream withdrawal of water, economic development, and climate change. 80% of Bangladesh’s water is used for cultivation, of which 75% is extracted from groundwater. Notably, Boro rice, a household staple, is an extremely thirsty crop. In fact, growing one kilogram of Boro rice requires 3,000 to 4,000 liters of water.  Meanwhile, the success of Bangladesh as the second-largest garment exporter comes with environmental costs. Every year, approximately 1,500 billion liters of water is used to dye and wash cotton and clothes for the garment industry. Furthermore, the country’s water supply agencies draw 78% of water supply for both domestic and industrial uses from underground.

Bangladesh gets more than 90% of its water from transboundary rivers originating in India and China. At the same time, the volume of water reaching Bangladesh is under pressure from the enormous population of neighboring states, limiting the flow of water downstream, constraining surface water availability, and impacting groundwater availability.

Moreover, improper waste disposal in urban centers has caused water and sanitation issues in Bangladesh. Untreated wastewater in industrial areas has resulted in severe health risks for communities in the surrounding areas.

Surface water pollution, seasonal variability of surface water, and the largely flat geography of the country have thus resulted in a major dependence on groundwater resources. However, arsenic, salinity, and pollution levels are increasing, compounded by sharp declines in the groundwater table (as steep as 2 to 5 meters every year in some parts of the country). This poses a threat to the sustainability and reliability of groundwater use. The country’s growth forecast predicts a doubling of domestic demand by 2030, a 200% increase in industrial water demand, and an over 46% increase in irrigation water demand. It is apparent that in a business-as-usual scenario, the demand for water will exceed available groundwater resources – the main source of water supply – by 40% in the dry seasons..

The collective impact of urbanization and environmental degradation is particularly visible in the Greater Dhaka area, a major engine of growth and prosperity for the national economy, spurring widespread concerns over the sustainability not only of Dhaka’s water resources, but also of Bangladesh’s economy. Of particular concern, also, is the Ganga Brahmaputra Meghna Delta, Asia’s largest delta and home to over 200 million people. Recent catchment developments as well as population and economic growth have had a profound impact on the fragile delta’s ecosystem, rendering it highly vulnerable to a growing risk of coastland flooding, wetland loss, shoreline retreat, and loss of infrastructure.

These challenges are exacerbated by legislative gaps, policy overlaps, and sometimes inadequate institutional capacity, which make it extremely difficult to govern the country’s water resources. Despite the government’s best efforts, there is thus scope for improvement in legislation, policy framework, and institutional capacity.