On the floods and contaminations that move urban marginality: Curating and counteracting (in)visibility through water infrastructures in Dhaka’s informal settlements

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


Water insecurities are a major challenge to cities worldwide. Especially “developing” megacities like Dhaka, Bangladesh, encounter acute and intensifying water emergencies of both excess (flooding rivers and sewerages) and precarity (contamination and inaccessibility). Recent studies explicate the inequalities enshrined within these deteriorating aquatic conditions, which are disproportionately and exponentially borne by marginalised (“unconnected”) communities in informal urban settlements. Researchers and policymakers prescribe more place-based, bottom-up and flexible policies as sustainable solutions: connecting the unconnected through more inclusive and secure water systems. However significant, interventions which articulate and address the unevenness of experienced water insecurity in cities like Dhaka often necessarily reinforce static and superficial “urban rich” versus “urban poor” categories. Projects like the World Bank-led “Dhaka Sanitation Improvement Project” thereby may become complicit in keeping marginalised communities and their socio-ecological struggles invisible and indivisible, and omitting the eco-political and economic structures that govern flows between the connected and unconnected domains of Dhaka’s waterscapes.

This paper explores how water insecurities, infrastructures and interventions intersect with politics of (in)visibility. It brings together urban, political ecology and mobility literatures to consider how water-based realities and relations im/mobilise marginalised communities in Dhaka. I first review how markers of marginality – especially gender and legal/migrant status – diversify how water inequalities are explained and embodied by people in informal settlements. Differences amongst marginalised (“invisibilised”) communities in how environmental emergencies are experienced are often flattened, if not outright excluded, from water (e)quality interventions, suggesting the need to further articulate agency and embodiment in urban water scholarship.

Second, I discuss how ambitious targets aimed at visibilising the burdens and bearers of Dhaka’s water insecurities are complicated by the manifold mobilities of marginalised communities. Community-based projects aimed at formalising water quality and distribution services can improve but also jeopardise the lives and livelihoods which many informal residents have established through Dhaka’s invisible, inconsistent and often-illegal water systems. Households may explicitly move to flood-threatened or contaminated areas because of their unregistered migrant status. Becoming “connected” through formal water arrangements may, therefore, exacerbate their tenure insecurity. Also, many women and men have mobilised themselves by building an income around Dhaka’s polluted waterways, for instance as informal river waste recyclers or faecal sludge removers. Here, I highlight the need to carefully consider the socio-ecological implications of apparently positive interventions, and to democratise and decolonise knowledge production around “contamination” and “invisibility.”

The water infrastructures and interventions of Dhaka and similar “developing” cities, I conclude, shape and are shaped by highly politicised and historical urban processes. Dhaka’s pipes, lakes, leakages and floods form the active foundation through which elites curate the invisibility of unwanted, “illegal” residents. More importantly, however, they also are conduits for those residents to counteract the invisibility and inequality – the hydrological apartheid (Graham, Desai and McFarlane, 2013) – they experience as their contaminated water, flooded dwellings and inadequate sewerage systems are consistently and consciously marginalised on urban political agendas. De-centralising and (re)politicising urban water structures, therefore, opens up pathways for communities and their allies to mobilise from marginality and visibilise invisible water injustices.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 28 Mar 2022
EventConnecting the Unconnected Symposium: Slum toilets and a safe circular water economy - Lancaster University, United Kingdom
Duration: 28 Mar 202229 Mar 2022


ConferenceConnecting the Unconnected Symposium
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


  • Urban sanitation
  • Water insecurity
  • Politics of (in)visibility
  • Climate Change


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