- Two decades of poverty reduction have helped improve Bangladesh’s level of food security, especially in rural areas.
- Despite that improvement, levels of hunger and malnutrition remain high.
- Bangladesh faces a number of threats to the progress it has made, including from climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Water security has been a challenge for Bangladesh. It has experienced decreasing water availability and extremely poor water quality.
Bangladesh is among the fastest-developing countries in the world and has managed to slash rates of poverty and undernutrition over several decades. Despite exceptional progress, there are several obstacles that threaten to undermine its food and water security. Around a quarter of the population still experiences frequent food insecurity and millions suffer from acute food insecurity, despite good levels of food availability. Child nutrition is also a concern, with a third of Bangladeshi children stunted and over a tenth wasted. Dietary diversity has improved somewhat, but is still lacking and micronutrient deficiencies are common as a result. Considering the challenges that Bangladesh faces, it is uncertain whether the country will be able to continue reducing poverty and food insecurity. Climate change is poised to worsen climate risks in an already-vulnerable country, imperilling the rural poor, who have been the main beneficiaries of Bangladesh’s poverty reduction. In the near-term, the Covid-19 pandemic has put incredible strain on the economy, placing further strain on food security.
Water security is also under pressure in Bangladesh. Although it is generally thought of as a country with an over-abundance of water, thanks to its position at the confluence of three large rivers, river flows can be very low during the dry season, which has led to increasing coastal salinity. Water quality is alarmingly poor. In rivers and other sources of surface water, industrial and domestic effluent has led to high levels of heavy metals and faecal contamination. Meanwhile, the shallow wells that are the most common source of drinking water are often high in naturally occurring arsenic, which has created a public health crisis in some areas. Dependence on wells has also caused an unsustainable fall in groundwater levels.
Bangladesh has made impressive progress over the last two decades, but that progress is vulnerable to being undone if the country is overwhelmed by crises such as climate change or the Covid-19 pandemic.
With a population of 163 million, Bangladesh is the eighth most populous country in the world and is among the world’s most densely populated countries. It has made remarkable progress in reducing poverty over the last two decades, although poverty remains high. In 2000, roughly half of Bangladeshis lived below the national poverty line. By 2010, this figure had been reduced to 31 per cent and in 2016, just under a quarter of the population lived below the poverty line. Bangladesh’s sustained success in reducing poverty reflects high and sustained economic growth, although economic growth has started to deliver less poverty reduction than in the past. In the last decade, 90 per cent of all poverty reduction took place in rural areas, which can at least partly be attributed to the fact that three-quarters of the population is rural.
Bangladesh is considered a lower middle-income country and has a fairly diverse economy. The service sector accounts for around 56 per cent of GDP, industry around 29 per cent, while agriculture accounts for 15 per cent of GDP. The agricultural sector is the country’s largest employer, with 42 per cent of workers employed in the sector. The crop subsector accounts for over half of agricultural GDP (though other sectors are growing rapidly). Rice, jute and tea dominate agricultural production. Rice is grown entirely for domestic consumption and production has tripled over the last two decades, due to the expansion of irrigation and the proliferation of high yield rice varieties. Jute and tea are largely grown as export crops.
Bangladesh is no longer the chronically food deficient country it was in the 1970s. Even as its population has more than doubled, Bangladesh’s food production has largely kept pace and it is self-sufficient at least in terms of calorie availability. Furthermore, nutrition has significantly improved over several decades. Between 1997 and 2007, Bangladesh achieved one of the fastest reductions in child undernutrition in recorded history. By 2014, the rate of stunting (low height for weight and a measure of undernutrition in children) in the country had fallen to 36 per cent, from 55 per cent in 1997. In the same period, maternal undernutrition fell from 52 to 17 per cent. Nutritional diversity has also improved, as the share of calories from cereals has decreased since 2010, while the average share of calories from eggs, meat and vegetables has increased, particularly among poorer Bangladeshis.
Despite encouraging progress in reducing overall undernutrition, there are a number of issues that significantly threaten food security. Approximately one-quarter of the population (roughly 40 million people) is food insecure, of whom 11 million suffer from acute hunger. According to the Global Hunger Index (GHI), Bangladesh’s 2018 GHI score of 26.1 ranks its level of hunger as ‘serious’, although this has fallen since 2000, when a score of 36 indicated ‘alarming’ levels of hunger.
Bangladesh’s high rate of hunger and food insecurity stem from poor access and utilisation of food, as overall availability is good and average dietary supply adequacy has been over 100 per cent since the 2000s. While poverty reduction has been impressive, poverty rates are still high, even in comparison to other South Asian countries and little poverty reduction has occurred in urban areas. While there is not always a direct link between poverty and food insecurity, food insecurity is often a dimension of poverty and higher levels of extreme poverty tend to correlate with higher levels of undernourishment and child stunting. It is important to note that income inequality is also a strong predictor of severe food insecurity, which can be three times higher in countries with high levels of inequality than in those with low levels. Bangladesh has experienced a considerable increase in inequality since 1994 and levels of undernutrition in children are considerably higher in families with lower household incomes: belonging to the top 60 per cent of wealth distribution in Bangladesh reduces the likelihood of stunting by 20-40 per cent.
High levels of stunting and underweight among children are still present and Bangladesh has particularly struggled to reduce rates of wasting (low weight for height and a strong predictor of mortality in children under the age of five). In 2017, 31 per cent of Bangladeshi children were stunted, making it a significant public health problem under World Health Organization guidelines (at the current rate of progress, it will be 2037 before stunting is no longer a threat to public health). Even among wealthier households, 17 per cent of children are stunted, suggesting that while poverty does significantly contribute to undernutrition, poverty alleviation alone will be insufficient to improve nutritional outcomes. Similarly, 14 per cent of Bangladeshi children are wasted, a figure that has not significantly decreased in the last two decades.
Micronutrient deficiencies are common and micronutrient supplementation is inadequate, particularly for vitamin A and iron. Over half of children are anaemic, which rises to 79 per cent in infants under one year. Iron deficiency represented the most common cause of anaemia in children. Similarly, 42 per cent of women aged 15-49 are anaemic, as are 50 per cent of pregnant women. A high prevalence of vitamin A deficiency (VAD) also represents a significant public health challenge, with up to a quarter of children under five suffering from some degree of VAD. Iodine, zinc, vitamin D and vitamin B deficiencies are also common. Part of Bangladesh’s micronutrient problem lies in a lack of dietary diversity. There was no improvement in dietary diversity between 2005 and 2013, when 59 per cent of women were consuming inadequately diverse diets (containing fewer than five food groups). In total, around 35 per cent of the population of Bangladesh consumes fewer than six out of twelve food groups. A lack of dietary diversity reflects the dominance of rice and cereals in diets, which contribute around 70 per cent of calories, though vegetables and fish also make up an important part of Bangladeshi diets.
Ongoing progress in reducing food insecurity is not inevitable and Bangladesh is likely to face challenges in maintaining this progress. Climate change has been identified as a key challenge to food security in Bangladesh, due to its projected influence on the agricultural sector. Bangladesh is already highly vulnerable to climatic shocks, due to its location in the low-lying part of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghana delta and its high population density. It also lies in the cyclone-prone Bay of Bengal, as well as near active tectonic plates. As of 20 May, Cyclone Amphan has caused significant damage to infrastructure, coastal flooding and tidal surges. The cyclone affected ten million people in Bangladesh and destroyed farmland, paddies and aquaculture developments.
Between 30-50 per cent of the country experiences some form of climate shock every year. In southern Bangladesh, sea level rises and related flooding, salinisation of fresh water and coastal erosion threaten livelihoods, while low rainfall, inadequate groundwater recharge and desertification are problems in the north. Bangladesh is likely to be among the countries most severely affected by climate change and changes have already been observed in the frequency and severity of climate-related disasters. Over the last 20 years, Bangladesh has experienced four one-in-twenty year floods, which climate models previously predicted. Similarly, while cyclones are not expected to occur more frequently, they are predicted to increase in severity. The dry season in northern Bangladesh is also becoming longer, making it more difficult to grow non-monsoon crops. The impact of climatic hazards on food security is likely to be especially severe in Bangladesh, where the majority of the rural poor rely on agriculture for income.
More immediately, the Covid-19 crisis is likely to hinder Bangladesh’s fight against food insecurity even after the pandemic passes. The crisis is predicted to undo years of gains in poverty-reduction around the world, including in Bangladesh. The World Bank has predicted that the economic consequences of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown will push around 49 million people into extreme poverty, eliminating all progress since 2017. Researchers at King’s College London estimate those in extreme poverty will rise by 420 million, undoing a decade’s worth pf progress. Bangladesh’s economy is already under strain as the garment industry (which accounts for 13 per cent of GDP and 84 per cent of exports) has experienced significant difficulties; a million garment workers have already lost their jobs. Remittances, another major pillar of the Bangladeshi economy, have also plummeted. As a result, households have started struggling to afford food and food insecurity is likely to increase as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Despite its position at the confluence of three major rivers, in what is effectively the world’s second-largest river drainage basin (the Ganges–Brahmaputra–Meghna (GBM) Basin), Bangladesh faces a number of serious threats to its water security. Bangladesh is the lowest riparian in the GBM Basin and is therefore highly dependent on and vulnerable to run-off from upper riparians. It is vulnerable to upstream river diversions, as 92.5% of flows originate outside of the country. During the wet season, rain is about three times higher than evapotranspiration in all parts of Bangladesh. For the most part, that water becomes runoff and eventually runs out to sea, but the water does not recharge aquifers. For the most part, limited storage capacity has meant that the significant amounts of excess water that Bangladesh receives during the wet season cannot be stored for later use. Generally, Bangladesh’s storage options are minimal, as much of the country’s land is too flat for dams. Despite the country’s reputation for flooding, river flows during the dry season can be very low (which is often made worse by upstream withdrawals). That allows saline water from the coast to intrude further upstream, making water unfit for consumption and increasing soil salinity.
While Bangladesh usually has enough water to meet its needs (97 per cent of the population has access to water), its water resources are often heavily polluted. While industrial activities do not extract as much water as other activities, they have a major impact on water quality. The industrial sector discharges around 15,000m³ of effluent into water bodies, which has contributed to high rates of pollution in surface water supplies. Over 200 rivers have untreated industrial waste dumped into them by over 1,000 industries, including those involved in pharmaceuticals, pesticides, metal industries and tanneries, among others. Domestic activities also contribute to the problem, making bacteriological contamination of water a common source of disease. In Dhaka, 80 per cent of tap water samples were found to be contaminated with faeces. Dhaka has one sewage treatment plant, that covers 30 per cent of the city. In rural areas, meanwhile, pit latrines are the most common way of dealing with wastewater. These latrines are often discharged directly into rivers, or may leach into the ground, contaminating water supplies.
To alleviate the problems caused by the country’s highly polluted surface water resources, the Government of Bangladesh began to dig shallow tube wells in the 1970s and 80s, which coincided with a reduction in diarrhoeal disease (though other public health initiatives at the time may have been responsible). In many areas, however, shallow groundwater is naturally contaminated with arsenic, which has created a massive public health problem in parts of the country. Two-thirds of Bangladeshis drink water containing unacceptably high levels of arsenic and in some areas, arsenic contamination of drinking water can be up to 70 times higher than safe levels. Furthermore, recent studies have revealed that the high proliferation of tube wells and unsustainable groundwater extraction practices across the country have meant that groundwater withdrawals exceed the groundwater recharge rate. According to one study, groundwater levels fell by 32 per cent between 2003-2013, threatening the country’s main source of drinking and agricultural water.
While Bangladesh has made exceptional progress in raising living standards since independence, it still faces significant issues in managing its food and water security. As the country faces climate change, a global pandemic and unchecked use and pollution of its water resources, it will struggle to maintain the rate of development that has defined the last two decades.