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Water Issues: Education for sustainable water life

A summary of the water cycle from USGS

Source: USGS (


Even though three-quarters of the earth is covered in water, most of this is not safe, drinkable water. In 2000, the world population was 6.2 billion and in 2011 it will be 7 billion. The UN estimates that by 2050, there will be an additional 3 billion people, mostly in developing countries that already suffer water stress.

A recent UNESCO publication “Water Ethics and Water Resource Management” shows that more than 100 million people in South East Asia and the Pacific lack access to safe water and 185 million are without access to safe sanitation. As a result, approximately 80,000 children die in this region each year from diarrhea-related diseases. According to the Asian Development Bank, “if the present unsatisfactory trends continue, in one or two decades, Asian developing countries are likely to face and cope with a crisis on water quality management that is unprecedented in human history.”

There is a serious shortage of irrigation and potable water in many parts of Bangladesh during the dry months from December to March, even though groundwater currently provides about 97 percent of Dhaka’s water demand. Human activities, such as use of agro-chemical and dumping of industrial and municipal wastes in the open water bodies have further deteriorated the surface water quality.

As one of the fastest growing cities in the world, Dhaka has been facing water -related problems over the last few decades. The densely populated city of about 12 million is the center of financial, business and political facilities. The disproportionate rise in the urban population has created severe pressure on existing infrastructure and services, including water supply, sanitation, sewerage and drainage services. The conditions in most of the city are poor, with direct discharges of human and industrial wastes into river systems, contamination of groundwater from inadequate sewerage systems, direct industrial disposals and mismanagement of waste disposal.

Rapid urbanization such as construction of roads, buildings, flood protection dams and structures are continuously hindering the natural groundwater recharges from rainfall and other sources from in and around the city.

Disappearances of many lakes, canals, and small rivers in also depreciated groundwater recharge. Reports say that a network of canals that facilitated the natural drainage for the floodwaters and groundwater recharge in this city has diminished over the last four decades. This gradually obstructed the natural groundwater recharge and deteriorated the water table conditions as well.

The main source of water in Bangladesh is fed by the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, which flow into the Bay of Bengal, and more than 40 percent of the county’s cultivated land is under irrigation. Bangladesh’s powered irrigation accounts for 83 percent of its total irrigated area.

The reasons behind the water crisis include a variety of factors including climate change, rapid industrialization, unplanned urbanization, poor management of water resources, improper traffic and transport management, and a lack of awareness and accountability.

Human activity is the main cause of ecosystem changes in the world. Many of the causes of pollution are unintentional and unforeseeable, such as the acidification of lakes; the dilution of wastes into water, containing disposed substances such as carbon dioxide, cadmium, arsenic, lead and mercury; the discharge of raw sewage into natural waters; and finally, arsenic contamination, which is described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the situation in Bangladesh as “the largest poisoning of a population in history”.

Arsenic contamination has greatly affected the Bengal Basin or Ganga-Meghna-Brahmaputra Basin of India and Bangladesh, where more than 50 million people are at risk. According to the report, it is known that 50 out of 64 districts in Bangladesh and 9 out of 18 districts in West Bengal have groundwater arsenic levels higher than the Indian and Bangladesh national standards of .05 microgram per liter or more. At this standard of safety, an estimated 27 million people in Bangladesh and 6 million in the neighbor West Bengal state of India are at risk.

A member of the nitrogen family, arsenic is an odourless and tasteless semi-metal that occurs naturally in rock and soil. It can combine with other elements to form organic and inorganic arsenicals, yet the latter is generally more toxic and common when found in water. WHO says drinking water containing arsenic in excess of 10 micrograms per liter can lead to arsenicosis, a chronic illness that produces skin disorders, gangrene and cancer of the kidneys and bladder.

Case reports on situations in countries around the world have been compiled and the arsenic problem in Bangladesh in particular has garnered more attention than in other countries. In Bangladesh, 27 percent of shallow tube-wells have been shown to have high levels of arsenic. Approximately 1 in 100 people who drink water containing 0.05 microgram arsenic per liter or more for a long period may eventually die from arsenic related cancers. According to WHO, factors such as delayed health effects, poor reporting, and low levels of awareness, the extent of the health problems caused by arsenic in drinking-water are vague and not well documented.

The ethical obligation falls on water providers to ensure sufficient water quality, as well as the continuous effort to provide water education at all levels. Even though science and technology are usually the main tools in utilizing water resources, the ethics of water are complex and often more broad in scope. The focus of the UNESCO report is to study the ethical issues associated with water resource utilization and management, including its uses in energy and other domains in other countries. There is an accepted international ethical belief that human beings are entitled to access to clean water as a human right. Development of water ethics and construction of policy naturally varies in countries such as Bangladesh to across the Asia Pacific, yet more studies are needed to address gaps in our approaches to governance and ethics of water life if sustainability is to be successfully achieved.

For further information, email the Regional Unit for Social and Human Sciences in Asia and the Pacific (RUSHSAP), UNESCO Bangkok, at:

To access the UNESCO publication on “Water Ethics and Water Resource Management”:

Written by Emily Chu, UNESCO Dhaka