As the water crisis deepens in many regions around the world, Bangladesh is among 64 blessed countries to still have 'low' levels of baseline water stress.
Bangladesh also boasts an enviable position in the South Asian region. Its biggest neighbour, India, and Pakistan both face 'extremely high' baseline water stress.
Bhutan is the only other South Asian country where the water stress level is low, according to the latest water stress rankings published by the US-based non-profit World Resources Institute (WRI).
The higher the water stress in a country, the more severe its water crisis is, and the worse the problem is set to become unless action is taken.
It also means water withdrawal is very high in that country due to high usage. This leads to a narrow gap between supply and demand, leaving the country vulnerable to fluctuations such as droughts or increased water withdrawals.
Even wealthy nations such as the UK, the US and Australia have higher water stress than Bangladesh. Among 17 countries facing 'extremely high' water stress, Qatar comes first, meaning the oil-rich country has the most acute water crisis in the whole world.
Being a low water stress country is a cause to rejoice for Bangladesh, where floods and droughts are common, and demand for water is going up due to growing urbanisation and industrialisation.
Elsewhere in Asia, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia are also low water-stressed countries.
More water stress, more worries
Water stress or scarcity of water is a grave menace to human lives and livelihoods that leads to severe hardship.
Water stress can also hurt the business stability of a country and its economy.
A 2017 World Bank report said the consequences of drought are often invisible, but they are significant and cause misery in slow motion.
It said long-term effects of severe droughts in cities are even costlier than floods.
The monsoon brings massive amounts of water to Bangladesh, and of the water that is available, over 80 percent is used for agriculture. Agriculture thus gobbles up a very big volume of water, which the WRI found to be one of the key reasons why a country ends up on the extreme water stress side.
Climate change has also led to rising sea levels which are claiming precious water from freshwater river deltas in Bangladesh. This increase in salinity is affecting the soil and the quality of groundwater.
High levels of salinity in groundwater in coastal areas of Bangladesh have made it undrinkable. For people living in those areas, finding a supply of pure water is an everyday problem.
Bangladesh's closet neighbour, India, is already feeling the heat. In 2018, the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), a government research agency, said the country is suffering from the 'worst water crisis in its history'.
What raises water stress levels
Water is a natural resource and the idea of a water crisis was once unthinkable.
Drought is generally thought to be a key reason for water crisis, but the WRI has found that water withdrawals around the world have witnessed an astronomical rise. This has led to situations where countries have suffered from water shortage.
According to the WRI, water withdrawals have more than doubled globally since the 1960s due to growing demand.
And this shows no signs of slowing down, thus exacerbating the problem.
Population growth, socioeconomic development and urbanisation are leading to an ever-increasing demand for water globally.
Secondly, there seems to be an abundant supply of freshwater on earth, but it is not as straightforward as that.
Earthwatch, a global environmental organisation, says water availability depends on two factors:
- The amount of water a country or region has – precipitation, the presence of rivers or lakes, and groundwater stores etc.
- The number of people and uses that water has to support – their individual demand or consumption of that water.
So, even though the absolute quantities of fresh water on earth have always remained approximately the same, it is the uneven distribution of water and human settlement that continues to create growing problems of fresh water availability and accessibility, said Earthwatch.
MENA the most water-stressed
Twelve among the 17 most water-stressed countries are in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the WRI index shows.
Because this region is hot and dry, it already has a low water supply, which is a natural drawback.
However, demand for water is rising in the region. Agriculture, industries and municipalities withdraw more than 80 percent of the available supply on average every year.
Besides, climate change is poised to complicate matters further in these countries.
Bangladesh needs good water management
Bangladesh is rich in water, having around 24,000 kilometres of rivers flowing through it.
It also has one of the highest population densities in the world, and the demand for water is on the rise.
If water and its usage is not properly managed, the country is bound to run into trouble. This will push Bangladesh into the block of high water-stressed countries.
Proper management is so important that even countries having high water stress levels have succeeded in securing water supplies by applying prudent management principles.
For example, Saudi Arabia is an 'extremely high' water-stressed country on the WRI index, but it promotes conservation of water by pricing it. Qatrah, one of its water conservation programmes, sets conservation targets and aims to reduce water usage by 43% within the next decade.
Australia has cut down its domestic water use by almost half. The country's water-trading scheme considers smart allocation of water in the face of variable supplies.
The WRI has three suggestions on water management:
- Increasing agricultural efficiency. Farmers can use seeds that require less water and improve irrigation techniques by using precision watering rather than using uncontrolled amounts of water in their fields. Engineers can also develop technologies that improve efficiency in agriculture.
- Investing in grey and green infrastructure. The WRI and the World Bank's research shows that built infrastructure (like pipes and treatment plants) and green infrastructure (like wetlands and healthy watersheds) can work in conjunction to tackle both water supply and water quality issues.
- Treating, reusing and recycling. Treating and reusing wastewater creates a new water source. Namibia, one of the most arid countries in the world, has been doing this. The country has been turning sewage water into drinking water for half a century.