Dhaka is witnessing an early diarrhoea outbreak this year. The hospitals in the city, including the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b), are treating hundreds of new patients every day. As many as 1,200 patients visited icddr,b alone on March 26. A report published in this daily on Thursday said 57 diarrhoea patients had been admitted to icddr,b on average every hour in the previous 24 hours.
The staggering number of diarrhoea patients has caught the hospitals off guard. “In my 36-year-long career, I have never seen so many diarrhoea patients,” Dr Tahmeed Ahmed, executive director of icddr,b, said when speaking to this daily last month.
Cross-contamination of the water supplied by Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (Wasa) has been cited as one of the major reasons behind this diarrhoea outbreak. The mustard, greenish colour of tap water in the affected areas, along with the stench, suggests contamination with sewage water. And this possibility cannot be ruled out, because often when old pipes are replaced, due to negative pressure, sewage water gets into the main water pipelines, resulting in cross-contamination.
This is not the first time that Bangladesh has suffered a diarrhoea or cholera outbreak. Every year, these water-borne diseases come back to haunt the citizens during summer. A 2018 World Bank report suggested that 80 percent of the people who use supply water face the risk of E. coli contamination. And 92 percent of Dhaka’s population drink water from contaminated water sources—mostly carrying E. coli—due to sanitation problems and industrial pollution of water.
Unfortunately, the Dhaka Wasa authorities seem reluctant to even acknowledge these issues. One would remember the remark by the current Wasa MD in 2019 that the water they supplied was 100 percent drinkable. He later refused to drink a glass of lemonade offered to him by a family from Jurain, made with Wasa water. One cannot blame the Wasa chief, because the yellowish colour of the water would not seem drinkable, yet a segment of Dhaka residents has been forced to have it because of the inefficiencies and laziness of the water authority. Recently, however, the Wasa MD once again claimed that 95 percent of the water supplied by them was pure which, apparently, only got contaminated because of leaks in the pipelines.
Dhaka Wasa is so indifferent to people’s suffering that, despite being aware of the poor quality of the water they supply, they have done little to fix it. Take the case of Jatrabari, for example. In 2019, water samples from Jatrabari was tested by the LGRD ministry, and the result revealed that the water was contaminated with coliform and heterotrophic bacteria. But little has been done to remedy the situation in Jatrabari since then.
Dhaka Wasa’s inefficiencies are hurting not just the consumers, but also the national economy, and it is creating a negative footprint on our SDG attainment agenda. According to a 2019 Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) revelation, 91 percent of Dhaka households burn 363.7 million cubic metres of gas every year to boil water supplied by Dhaka Wasa to make it drinkable. The financial cost of this amounts to more than Tk 332 crore annually.