A Song of Fire and Water: Present State of Water in Dhaka and How People Purify It

The theme of the World Water Day 2019, ‘Leaving no one behind’, basically resembles the 2010 UN recognition of “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right…” As of today, however, globally 2.1 billion people still live without safe water, around 159 million people collect water from unsafe sources such as ponds and streams, and more than 700 children under the age of five die every day from diarrhoea linked to unsafe water and poor sanitation. Thus, the quality of drinking water is still an issue of great concern both in developed and developing countries. And public authority bears a major responsibility for supplying safe drinking water. However, when the general public cannot rely on such measures, they take personal initiatives to ensure the water quality at the cost of financial loss, which when aggregated equals to a huge loss of public goods.

BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University’s annual report on the State of Cities (SOC) 2018, ‘Water in Dhaka City: A Governance Perspective’ revealed that due to safety concerns, people in Dhaka are burning nearly BDT 2,700 crore (1 crore = 10 million) worth of gas every year to purify water. Conducting a survey on 768 formal and informal households in Dhaka, the research found that about 73 percent of the people use various mechanisms (e.g. boiling, filtering, purification tablets, bottle/jar water) to purify the water supplied by Dhaka Water and Sewerage Supply Authority (DWASA). Among them, 42.3 percent boil the water while 7.6 percent filter it using various modern equipment available in the local markets. Furthermore, about 11.5 percent of the respondents reported boiling the water first and then purifying it using a filter.

Generally, to boil drinking water Dhaka city residents either use gas from Titas Gas Transmission and Distribution Company Limited (TGTDCL) or Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) from various companies (e.g. Bashundhara, Beximco, Orion, etc.). To use gas from TGTDCL, they have to pay BDT 800 and 850 for single and double burners respectively. Whereas, the price of LPG gas (5.44 cubic metres) depends on companies and ranges from BDT 1,100 to 1,200.

Furthermore, the research shows that a single household on average boils around 6,486 litres of water per year by burning about 55 cubic metres of gas. Using TGTDCL gas at a price of BDT 0.09 for boiling per litre of water, a single household burns gas worth of around BDT 616 per year. Thus, the total cost of gas for boiling drinking water in Dhaka city amounts to around BDT 170 crore per year. Using LPG gas increases the price to around BDT 2,662.7 crore per year, given the cost of BDT 2.98 for boiling per litre of water (Table 1). Thus, estimation shows that the price of gas burned to purify water was 5.48 times higher compared to the total revenue collected by DWASA in the fiscal year 2015-16.

Table 1: Cost of water boiling per year in Dhaka city

Further analysis in the research shows that people’s decision to boil water mainly comes from the fear that consuming unboiled water may cause waterborne diseases as they assume it to be contaminated with bacteria, protozoa, and viruses. So, people reported to prefer boiling water for 35 minutes on average with the lowest time being 10 minutes and the highest 120 minutes. About 72 percent of the respondents reported boiling water once daily and 16.95 percent at least twice daily while a few people were found boiling water more than twice to meet their needs.

In addition to the cost of gas for boiling water, the research also found that a small capital investment of BDT 247.35 on average is needed for buying new aluminium pitchers or pots. The price of the pitchers or pots ranges between BDT 100 to 1,200.  Moreover, 19 percent of the people were found to filter water by spending average BDT 3,450 as instrument installation cost and BDT 250 more for periodical maintenance. It is, therefore, very apparent that the residents of Dhaka are spending a significant amount of money for water boiling and associated activities to have safe drinking water.

Safe drinking water became a global concern due to the shortage of accessibility in its natural sources as well as surface water contamination. Drinking water comes from only 3 percent of the total water in the world called fresh water, collected from groundwater, surface water, and glaciers. But this drinking water consumed by around 6.8 billion people in the world is <1 percent of total global freshwater. So, the value of drinking water is much higher than we can imagine and it is said that World War III will happen due to the shortage of drinking water.

Particularly, the developing world and its megacities will face severe water crisis due to climate change and economic expansion. In Dhaka, one of the first growing megacities in the world, every year about 6 lac (1 lac = 100,000) new people permanently migrate from different parts of the country. Moreover, a large number of people from the nearest districts like Gazipur, Narayanganj, Manikganj, Munshiganj, and Narsingdi come and go on a daily basis to meet their needs. These residential and moving people depend on water supplied by DWASA. DWASA provides about 240.23 crore litres of water to 3.11 lac households through 10 zonal offices (excluding the Narayanganj zonal office) using 760 deep tube-wells and 2 treatment plants. Consumers use this water for various daily activities including drinking, bathing, cleaning dishes, sanitation, etc.

The BIGD report further analysed the water supplied by DWASA to see whether the water quality is good enough to drink and except for one, found the water in all of DWASA’s pump stations to be safe. However, when the same water was tested taking samples from household reservoirs, in most of the cases, it was found to be contaminated (with total coliform, faecal coliform). Contamination occurs mainly when water is distributed from pump stations to households due to pipeline leakages. Also, contaminations occur in the groundwater and household rooftop reservoirs as they are not properly cleaned at least twice a year as prescribed by experts.

Therefore, safe drinking water in Dhaka can be seen as an issue of governance both from supplier’s and consumer’s sides. Just as it is DWASA’s responsibility to eliminate all informal connections and ensure proper maintenance of the supply lines, on the other hand, consumers should also take measures to clean their reservoirs on a regular basis. DWASA should enforce reservoir cleaning by using its zonal offices. These measures can save a huge amount of money spent burning gas, at the same time enhance public health by reducing the number of waterborne diseases. Therefore, combined efforts from both public and private sides are required to achieve the safe drinking water related goal of Vision 2021 as well as sustainable development goals (SDG 6) by the end of 2030.

Raihan Ahamed, Tanvir Ahmed Mozumder, and Dr. Md. Shanawez Hossain are researchers at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not represent the institution they serve.

Photo : Copyright 2020, Pai-Shih Lee licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0