by Brian Currinder
In a city of 17 million people, finding a bathroom shouldn’t be an issue, right? With 67 public toilets in the entire city (and a 2011 estimate counting five that actually worked), it is an all too apparent one in Dhaka, the capital and ever-growing megalopolis at the heart of Bangladesh. I hasten to add that these are not the gripes of a foreign traveler who ventured too far from his hotel or had to deal with temporary discomfort while sandwiched in gridlock traffic; rather, the lack of access to a functioning toilet is an everyday issue for many of those living in the city, and it carries serious social, health, and environmental consequences.
At any given time during the day, it is estimated that 2-3 million low-income workers are out on Dhaka’s streets, with little to no access to a toilet or sanitation facilities. Additionally, many of these workers go home to slum conditions with limited or even no toilet access – a bleak reality for at least one third of the city. While the lack of toilet accessibility is an affront for all affected, it is chiefly women who bear the brunt of the injustice. Unlike men, Bangladeshi women do not have the “privilege” to relieve themselves on the streets or use bathrooms in the local mosques. Instead, women usually have no other option but to break the cultural norm by using the streets, doing so at the expense of their safety and basic dignity. Pollution and social inequity are often measurable consequences of inadequate water and sanitary conditions; the loss of dignity is not.
Bangladesh’s water and sanitation issues that contribute to gender inequity are not toilet-centric – polluted surface water resources around the country have forced the majority of the populace to transition to cleaner, but not always potable, groundwater resources. However, deep tubewells that can access clean groundwater are often expensive to install and maintain, leaving across the countryside. For rural households without direct access to clean water, women are charged with gathering water from the nearest tubewell site, often traveling long distances to do so. Time spent gathering water is time that could be spent in school or work, limiting women’s development and empowerment. Those unfortunate enough to not have access to a tubewell are usually relegated to using polluted surface water. Bangladesh has made considerable progress in recent decades by installing a variety of tubewells throughout the country, but gender inequity remains significant and widespread as many households still lack reasonable access to clean water.
Lying upstream of Bangladesh is the secluded Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. With a mountainous topography, low population density, and an abundance of protected forest sheltering pristine water resources, Bhutan seems to offer a fresh contrast to the water woes of Bangladesh. However, Bhutan’s rapid development in recent years has presented significant challenges for maintaining adequate water quality. Additionally, changing precipitation regimes – with climate change as the suspected culprit – have begun to alter the seasonal timing and accessibility of water. As locals will tell you, trash-choked waterways near development are the most apparent indicator that things have begun to go awry, while many agricultural areas that have never experienced water shortages are now struggling just to get by.
In traditional Bhutanese society, management of water and other resources at the household level are in significant contrast to Bangladesh. Women typically have an equal voice in economic and household decisions, and gender roles tend to be quite fluid - it is not uncommon for men to gather water and wood, or for women to raise livestock. Furthermore, women are empowered through land ownership and involvement in community decisions.
This is not to say that gender inequity does not exist in Bhutan – the majority of government positions are currently held by men – nor is the comparison meant to be a reckoning of the traditional social structure in Bangladesh. Rather, observations of each country are chiefly tied to how freshwater availability, inadequate infrastructure, and population density can lead to water pollution, and ultimately – depending on existing social structure and gender roles – gender inequity. While water pollution in Bhutan is generally not as pervasive or severe as in Bangladesh, traditionally equal gender roles in Bhutan seem to have dampened the potential negative effects of water issues on current gender inequity. In Bangladesh, traditionally unequal gender roles have allowed widespread pollution and inadequate infrastructure to have an amplificatory effect on current inequities.
Despite their contrasts, Bangladesh and Bhutan are inextricably tied to one another by water: all of Bhutan’s runoff eventually makes its way to Bangladesh via the immense Brahmaputra river – a river already shouldering significant pollution loads from its path through Tibet and India. As a downstream inheritor of Bhutan’s current and future development, maintaining adequate water quality in Bhutan is an imperative for Bangladesh and its many marginalized women. Environmental degradation and inadequate infrastructure are an offense to all, but especially so to the already disenfranchised woman.
Bryan Currinder is a Master’s of Environmental Studies (MES) candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. Bryan traveled to Bangladesh and Bhutan with another MES student, Naimul Islam, in August 2016 to study the quality of surface and groundwater resources in developed and undeveloped areas of each country