Securing a Sustainable Water Resource for Dhaka

A large number of people depend on the Meghna River for their livelihood, including those who live on subsistence fishing. Photo credit: Deltares.

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A project assessed the threats facing the Meghna River and worked with stakeholders in ensuring the sustainable supply of safe drinking water for the city.


Bangladesh embraces the world’s largest river delta but is in dire need of drinkable water. Municipal and industrial wastewater contaminate waterbodies in and around its cities. The effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels, increase the pollution of both surface and groundwater with salt. Poor water quality has been a long-term challenge that significantly impacts public health, fisheries, and agriculture.

Dhaka, the capital and the world’s most densely populated city, was sourcing its water supply from the Buriganga and Sitalakhya rivers but had to gradually transition to groundwater to meet the demand. However, depleting groundwater resources in and around the city 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 quality, the Meghna River has been selected as a new source. Located 30 kilometers east of Dhaka, the river 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 5 years due to tributary canals that are loaded with both domestic and industrial wastewater.

In 2013, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) approved a $250 million loan for a project that would supply treated water from the Meghna River to the city. ADB also provided technical assistance to strengthen government capacity for monitoring and maintaining the water quality of the river to ensure Dhaka’s long-term water security.

The project tapped Dutch expertise and experience in water management and treatment. A large part of the Netherlands is in the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta. These rivers pass through cities and industrial and agricultural areas before flowing into the Netherlands. With the country at the receiving end of these rivers, water treatment has become 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.


Given the rapid urbanization and increasing industrialization in Dhaka and its surrounding areas, water quality of the Meghna River is under threat. The main pollution threats are the thousands of small and medium-sized enterprises that lack effluent treatment plant or well-functioning treatment plants and that discharge effluents into tributary canals flowing into the river. One of these polluted tributaries is the Bishnandi Canal that enters the Meghna River just upstream of the proposed Bishnandi intake point for water withdrawal and supply.

According to Bangladesh’s Environment Conservation Rules of 1997, each industry discharging into surface water should have an effluent treatment plant. However, it is well known that some of the industries do not comply with this.


The stretch of the Meghna River between the Bhairab and Meghna bridges is of great economic importance as it connects mainland transport routes with the main sea port of the country. The government has declared development economic zones in locations with transport corridor facilities, including areas surrounding the Bhairab and Meghna bridges. Eight areas have been identified for the development of major projects; two of these may directly impact water quality at the proposed intake points:

Protection of river water quality is the responsibility of Department of Environment while supply of adequate safe water to the Dhaka residents is the responsibility of Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (DWASA). Local government also plays an important role in river water quality protection through implementation of relevant policies.


Preserving the water quality in the Meghna River was given high priority to realize the full benefits of investments in improving the water supply. The cost of the water treatment will increase if the quality of the water in the river deteriorates.

To address ongoing and future threats to the river, ADB initiated in 2014 a technical assistance project financed by a grant of $1 million from the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction (JFPR).

Deltares, an independent institute for applied research in the field of water and subsurface resources from the Netherlands, was contracted to assist the Department of Environment in strengthening the monitoring and enforcement mechanism for the Meghna River. This included assessing the threats facing the river, identifying protection measures to ensure the sustainable and safe supply of drinking water, boosting the capacity of the department, and raising awareness of the importance of maintaining the quality of water bodies like the Meghna River.

The project 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.

The project also piloted an incentive or reward system to help motivate industries to reduce pollution to an acceptable level.


The project helped to put water quality of the Meghna River on the agenda of all stakeholders, including the government, local authorities, and industries. It established participatory monitoring by forming and activating eight watchdog groups through training and awareness.

A pilot study on the application of innovative cleaner production principles in the industrial clusters of the Meghna River catchment demonstrated reduced wastewater discharge as well as savings. The study on three textile companies and one paper mill revealed a 10%–30% reduction in chemical consumption, 10%–22% reduction in electricity use, savings in water use leading to a significant reduction of wastewater discharge, and better functioning of the effluent treatment plant.

An important outcome of the project is that 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. 

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.


Taking the lessons learned from the degradation of Dhaka’s former surface water sources, protection of Meghna River water quality was given priority at the highest management levels.

The project engaged with a wide range of stakeholders, which helped ensure the relevance and ownership of project activities and outputs. It empowered local stewardship of the river by establishing a participatory pollution monitoring system through local watchdogs.

Pilot studies helped promote the adoption and replication of cleaner production technologies by demonstrating their benefits in terms of savings and environmental impact.

The project generated and disseminated important knowledge on the water quality, pollution sources, and economic and ecological resources of the Meghna River. This research is needed to inform policy making and ensure the sustainable management of the river.

Farhat Jahan Chowdhury
Senior Project Officer (Environment), South Asia Department, Asian Development Bank

Farhat Jahan Chowdhury manages ADB’s portfolio on environment and climate change in Bangladesh. She holds a PhD in Environmental Policy from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, United States.  She studied Urban Environmental Management at Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Thailand. Before joining ADB, Farhat worked at the World Bank, Texas A&M AgriLife Research Center at El Paso, Universities Council on Water Resources at Illinois, AIT, and CARE.

Melanie Ullrich
External Relations Officer, European Representative Office, Asian Development Bank

Melanie works with ADB’s European member countries to ensure their engagement with ADB. She is a graduate of Hamburg University in Germany and studied Chinese Culture and Language at Zhejiang University, Hangzhou in the People’s Republic of China. Before joining ADB, she was head of marketing at the European Union Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai and business and policy program manager at Asia House in London.

Asian Development Bank (ADB)

The Asian Development Bank is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Established in 1966, it is owned by 68 members—49 from the region. Its main instruments for helping its developing member countries are policy dialogue, loans, equity investments, guarantees, grants, and technical assistance.

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