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OP-ED: The inequality in water

  • Published at 04:44 pm July 11th, 2020
tap running water
Representational photo: Bigstock

Reduced inequalities can ensure true inclusive development

In Bangladesh, disparities in opportunities are so evident in every sphere of life that focusing only on economic inequalities provides a partial picture of the status and policy agendas of inequality. One of the core objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to reduce inequalities within and across countries. 

The SDG framework identifies inequality as a key issue to be tackled since reduced inequalities can ensure truly inclusive development and drive human progress towards sustainability and universal wellbeing.

In the case of income, one of the targets of SDG10 is to progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40% of the population at a rate higher than the national average by 2030. The national data since the 1980s show that the average per capita household income (at 2010 prices) during 1986-2016 grew at 1.43% while the same for the bottom 40% grew by only 0.28%. 

A worse form of inequality that is widespread in the country is inequality of opportunities, which is both the cause and consequence of inequality of outcomes. Reduced inequalities have both economic and social benefits. 

It strengthens people’s perception about a fair society, improves social cohesion and mobility, and boosts employment and education with beneficial effects on human capital and development. Without equal opportunities, systemic patterns of discrimination and exclusion prevent the poor and disadvantaged groups from accessing economic, political, and social resources, resulting in “inequality traps” and the persistence of inequality across generations. 

Unequal access to potable water

Prof Abul Barkat conducted a study in six arsenic-affected villages in Bangladesh which has shown that 10.2% of the population is affected by visible signs of arsenicosis (ie, keratosis, melanosis, and kerato-melanosis) with 16.1% among the poor, 5.4% among the non-poor, and 1.7% among the rich. 

The real rate of arsenicosis would be much higher than the rate with visible symptoms because many affected persons are yet to display visible symptoms and many others will have multiple organ complications with suppressed visible symptoms. 

Arsenic-affectedness is not an economic status-neutral phenomenon. The above study revealed that poor people are disproportionately affected by arsenicosis than their non-poor counterparts in the same villages. In these rural areas, poor people (ie, land poor, income poor, food-intake poor) constitute 44% of the total population but they represent over 70% of all the arsenicosis patients having visible symptoms; non-poor constitute 56% of the total population but 30% of all the arsenicosis patients, and the rich constitute about 8% of the total population but represent only about 1.4% of all arsenicosis patients. 

The estimated odds ratios show that the poor as compared to the non-poor are 3.4 times more likely to get arsenicosis, and the same is about 11 times higher for the poor as compared to the rich.  This highly skewed inequality in the distribution of arsenicosis patients in rural Bangladesh provides enough evidence that arsenicosis is a disease of poverty.

The human rights challenge of arsenicosis as a disease of poverty gets more complex due to the fact that arsenicosis is not only a disease of poverty, but also a poverty-aggravating or poverty-perpetuating disease. 

This is so because, once a poor person is affected by arsenicosis (with multiple organ complications) they lose their ability to work and, in the absence of any financial assistance, the poor household falls into perpetual poverty -- a new type of poverty trap. 

Therefore, we have discovered two types of poverty associated with the drinking of arsenic-contaminated water in Bangladesh, which are: Poverty-mediated arsenicosis, implying that the poor people are     disproportionately highly affected by arsenicosis as compared to the non-poor, as well as arsenicosis-mediated poverty, implying that the aggravation of poverty due to arsenicosis whereby the arsenic-affected poor people become poorer in the process due to economic, social, and psychological reasons.

This dual poverty -- poverty-mediated arsenicosis and arsenicosis-induced poverty -- is a new type of poverty trap for Bangladesh. The income reduction effect and consumption shocks are the two major pathways through which economic burden of arsenicosis works. 

This trap poses a real challenge towards National Goals of Poverty Reduction because the conventional poverty reduction approaches address everything (income poverty, consumption poverty, employment poverty, credit poverty, etc,) but not the poverty associated with drinking arsenic-contaminated water. 

Concluding remarks

We always debate how climate change exacerbates economic inequality, but rarely do we think the opposite: That inequality itself can be a driver of climate change. What’s missing from the conversation is what our inequality crisis is doing to our planet. How unequal societies inflict more environmental damage than more economically even societies. 

One key topic that is still overlooked is how environmental degradation and climate change are themselves the toxic by-products of our inequality problem. Many people who live in low-income communities, for example, cannot afford to retrofit their homes to make them more energy efficient, meaning they use more power than necessary, generating more pollution.

Shishir Reza is an Environmental Analyst and Associate Member, Bangladesh Economic Association.

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