Improving water security for the poor

Water security for an urban river

The challenge

The capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, has seen remarkable industrial growth and human development over the last decade, lifting many people out of poverty. But the city’s rivers, which are expected to supply water and absorb pollution, are under significant stress.

The Government of Bangladesh has ambitious growth and development targets, such as doubling the annual revenue of the ready-made garment industry to USD50 billion by 2021 and achieving zero poverty by 2030. This raises concern about water quality issues associated with industrial growth and which influence the livelihoods and well-being of millions of people living close to the rivers.

The observatory

This observatory aims to support the government’s ambition for industrial growth, whilst minimising environmental damage and public health impacts, particularly for the poor relying on rivers for drinking, cooking, washing and bathing.

We will analyse water quality risks and their impact on human health, as well as exploring the linkages between industrial growth, poverty reduction and water security.

New models and tools will enable regulatory agencies and industry to quickly assess the effectiveness of pollution reduction initiatives, and help the government understand the likely outcomes of different economic and environmental policies and programmes, particularly for the poor.

Research questions

  • Can we model river water quality to determine risks faced by people living near the river?
  • What is the role of new technologies to cheaply and quickly measure toxicity in factories and river systems?
  • How does river water quality affect human health, and how do risks vary by season, locations and social vulnerability?
  • How are poverty dynamics influenced by water-related economic growth?

News and blog

Safe water for all, April 2018
Life on the banks of a polluted river, February 2017
Modelling toxic chemicals in Dhaka’s Turag-Balu River
, January 2017
Can cleaner rivers help Dhaka’s poor? April 2016
Water on all sides: reflections on Bangladesh, July 2015


Brouwer, R., Sharmin, D. F., Elliott, S., Liu, J., Khan, MR. (2023). Costs and benefits of improving water and sanitation in slums and non-slum neighbourhoods in Dhaka, a fast-growing mega-city. Ecological Economics, 207 (107763).

Hoque, S. F., Peters, R., Whitehead, P., Hope, R., Hossain, M. A. (2021). River pollution and social inequalities in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Environmental Research Communications, 3 (095003).

Whitehead, P.G., Mimouni, Z., Butterfield, D., Bussi, G., Hossain, M.A., Peters, R., Shawal, S., Holdship, P., Rampley, C., P., N., Jin, L., Ager, D. (2021). A New Multibranch Model for Metals in River Systems: Impacts and Control of Tannery Wastes in Bangladesh. Sustainability, 13 (3556).

Charles, K.J., & Greggio, E. (2021) Invited perspective: Beyond National Water Quality Surveys: Improving Water Quality Surveillance to Achieve Safe Drinking Water for All (Sustainable Development Goal 6.1) Environmental Health Perspectives 129 (9).

Rampley, C.P.N. , Whitehead, P.G., Softley, L., Hossain, M.A., Jin, L., David, J., Shawal, S., Das, P., Thompson, I.P., Huang, W.E., Peters, R., Holdship, P., Hope, R., Alabaster, G. (2020). River toxicity assessment using molecular biosensors: Heavy metal contamination in the Turag-Balu-Buriganga river systems, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Science of the Total Environment, 703.

Whitehead, P. G., Bussia, G., Peters, R., Hossain, M.A., Softley, L., Shawal, S., Jind, L., Rampley, C.P.N., Holdship, P., Hope, R., Alabaster, G. (2019). Modelling heavy metals in the Buriganga River System, Dhaka, Bangladesh: Impacts of tannery pollution control. Science of the Total Environment, 697.

Korzenevica, M. (2019). Emerging themes on considering water equity. REACH Research Brief, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.

REACH (2018) Understanding river water quality risks to promote economic growth and reduce poverty in Dhaka. REACH Policy Brief.

Whitehead, P., Bussi, G., Hossain, M.A., Dolk, M., Das, P., Comber, S., Peters, R., Charles, K. J., Hope, R., Hossain, M.S. (2018) Restoring water quality in the polluted Turag-Tongi-Balu river system, Dhaka: Modelling nutrient and total coliform intervention strategies, Science of the Total Environment, 631-632, 223-232.

REACH (2017) Identifying water quality risks and modelling intervention strategies. REACH Policy Brief, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

REACH (2015) Country Diagnostic Report, Bangladesh. REACH Working Paper 1, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

Research team

Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology: Professor Mohammed Abu Eusuf, Dr Mohammed Abed Hossain, Professor Md. Rezaur Rahman, Professor Mashfiqus Salehin

University of Dhaka: Dr Mohammed Abu Eusuf, Md. Abdul Khaleque, Professor Mahbuba Nasreen, Shamima Prodhan

University of Oxford: Dr Rob Hope, Dr Sonia Hoque, Rebecca Peters, Professor Ian Thompson, Professor Paul Whitehead

‘Water security has a defining role to play in Bangladesh’s goal to achieve middle-income status and end extreme poverty.’

Professor Mashfiqus Salehin, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology

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