John Openshaw


Water Quality


MARCH 22, 2013

FILED UNDER:bangladesh, environment, health

Water from my faucet
Water from my faucet


This set of pictures is dedicated to water use and water quality around Dhaka: from the modern to the historic.

I wanted to start with the usual state of the water coming out of the faucet in my bathroom. I’ve placed a plastic cup to catch the water so you can see that it’s not exactly clear. And, unfortunately, running it for a long period of time doesn’t really help much. This is far from the worst it has been — for a week it ran much darker, almost mud. I imagine that the sediment is introduced in the almost constant digging and pipe re-arranging which is a hallmark of Dhaka’s streets. The minute one deep hole has been closed, men are burrowing another just a few short feet away.

Really, I’m quite lucky to have a faucet at all. Exploring Old Dhaka, many depend on wells for their water supply. In the second picture, a boy pumps water from a well that is nearly his size in a communal courtyard.

The next two pictures highlight two more communal wells that I found while exploring the city. It’s not unusual to see residents gathered around wells doing laundry and washing their hair. The wells pictured here are on the cleaner side: I often see people taking baths at street side wells — soaping themselves with a sewage draining ditch just feet away.

On the subject of wells, sadly well water in Bangladesh can be dangerous — contaminated with, among other things, arsenic and water borne pathogens.

A survey from 2000 to 2010 estimated that 35 to 77 million people in Bangladesh have been chronically exposed to arsenic in their drinking water. This mass poisoning — sometimes described as the largest in history — has grave costs: it is estimated that 1 out of every 18 deaths may be arsenic related. The economic costs are also astronomical, the early deaths may cause estimated losses of $12.5 billion over the next 20 years.

Microbiological contamination across household water supplies is likely even more widespread than chemical contamination. A UNICEF report cites a limited survey which found that half of water samples contained bacteria suggesting fecal contamination, 10% of these at very high levels.

The level of contamination is not surprising. Pollution is a huge problem — as I’ve tried to suggest with the picture of the boats departing from a trash strewn boarding area on one of Dhaka’s lakes. In Dhaka, nearly one-third of the domestic effluents are released directly into the environment without any treatment, causing contamination of surface water surrounding the city.

This is obviously not a new problem — a dilapidated East India Company tomb built in the mughal style in old Narinda Christian Cemetary in Old Dhaka is the resting place of several among many who died of water borne disease. A damaged and defaced stone dated with the year 1845 within the monument memorializes a East India Company member ”who sunk under attack of cholera after only two days illness”.