Key Takeaways

Bangladesh embraces the world’s largest river delta but is in dire need of drinkable water. Much of the country’s groundwater contains high levels of poisonous arsenic. The effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels, increase the pollution of both surface and groundwater with salt. Waterbodies in and around the cites are contaminated with municipal and industrial wastewater. Water quality in Bangladesh has been a long-term challenge; the poor quality significantly impacts public health, fisheries, and agriculture.

Because of the contaminated surface water, Bangladesh relies heavily on groundwater. Dhaka, the capital and the world’s most densely populated city, was sourcing water supply from the Buriganga and Sitalakhya rivers but had to gradually transition to groundwater to meet the demand. Depleting groundwater resources in and around Dhaka has made the development of a new surface water source essential. As nearby water bodies are unsuitable for public water supply because of poor and deteriorating water quality, the Meghna River has been selected as a new source, as it has good water quality and ample quantity even during the dry season. However, scenarios suggest it could become too polluted for drinking within the next five years due to tributary canals that are loaded with both domestic and industrial wastewater.

When Delta meets Dutch 

In 2013, ADB approved a public sector loan of $250 million to finance the Dhaka Environmentally Sustainable Water Supply Project. Agence Francaise de Developpement and the European Investment Bank co-financed the project with $64 million and $136 million respectively. The project was to supply treated water from the Meghna River to Dhaka city by Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (DWASA). Due to ongoing and future threats to the Meghna River, ADB initiated a Technical Assistance (TA) project financed by a grant of $1 million from the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction (JFPR).

In 2015, Deltares, an independent institute for applied research in the field of water and subsurface resources from the Netherlands, was awarded a contract of $1 million to assist the Department of Environment (DOE) in strengthening the monitoring and enforcement mechanism for the Meghna River to ensure Dhaka’s long-term water security. This included assessing the threats facing the river, identifying protection measures to endure the sustainable and safe supply of drinking water, boosting the capacity of DOE, and raising awareness of the importance of maintaining the quality of water bodies like the Meghna River.

Bring in the Dutch!

Where better to look for water management than in the Netherlands? The country at the northwestern fringe of the European continent, is experienced in it like no one else. For a good reason: Around 60% of the country lies beneath sea level with the three largest cities, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, all in these low-lying regions. Water management has been on the agenda long before climate change became a concern, going back to the 13th century, when first strategies and technologies, such as the now iconic windmills, were developed.

However, the sense of safety was sharply eroded in 1953, when the North Sea broke through the dikes, flooding more than 2,000 square kilometers of land and killing 1,800 people overnight. In the aftermath of the flood, the Netherlands redoubled their efforts to battle the sea by creating an enormous flood-control system known as the Delta Works. To underline the importance of flood control, the duty of the government to prevent flooding is even part of the Dutch constitution.

Water treatment is another important factor. A large part of the Netherlands is in the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta; these rivers pass through cities, industrial and agricultural areas before flowing into the Netherlands. Being at the receiving end of these rivers, water treatment is part of the Dutch DNA; managing its water quality enables the Netherlands to be one of the world’s largest exporters of agricultural and food products.

The life and livelihood of the people of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna delta also depend on water. Meghna is the widest river among those that flow completely inside the boundaries of Bangladesh.  

The TA looked into improvements in policy and regulatory requirements to protect the water quality of the Meghna River. Deltares and its partners Witteveen+Bos (NL), Enviro Consultants Ltd. (Bangladesh), and e.Gen Consultants Ltd. (Bangladesh) made an inventory of pollution sources and future development in the river basin. Historical water quality data were collected, and the river quality was monitored. Data have been analyzed using Delft-FEWS, an open data platform initially developed as a flood forecasting and warning system. Project outputs included an identification of an ecologically critical area. “Deltares demonstrated high level of commitment and professional excellence in this applied research by achieving the TA’s results,” says Farhat Chowdhury, Senior Project Officer ADB.

“This project helped to put water quality of the Meghna River on the agenda of all stakeholders. The Bangladesh government, local authorities as well as industries felt the sense of urgency to protect the water quality. One important outcome is that now the Meghna River Master Plan is being prepared under the supervision of an inter-ministerial High Level Committee. This master plan will include a pollution control strategy and concrete measures,” says Hans Aalderink, Team Leader and Strategic Advisor at Deltares.

With the successful completion of the project, the Meghna River is expected to account for more than 40% of the raw water supply and will serve more than 10 million people with drinking water.

ADB, Bangladesh and Europe

Bangladesh joined ADB in 1973. Since 1973, ADB has committed loans, grants, and technical assistance worth $28.57 billion for Bangladesh. The blueprint for ADB’s operations in Bangladesh, the Country Partnership Strategy (2021–2025), focuses on boosting competitiveness, employment and private sector development, promoting green growth and climate resilience as well as strengthening human capital and social protection.

The Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction was established in 2000 and provides direct grant assistance to the poorest and most vulnerable groups in developing member countries of ADB. The grants target poverty reduction initiatives with the direct participation of nongovernment organizations, community groups, and civil society.

ADB’s European Representative Office, based in Frankfurt, Germany works with companies and governments across ADB’s 17 European member countries to facilitate the application of European expertise in ADB projects in its developing member countries.