Many of the world’s megacities depend on groundwater from geologically complex aquifers that are over-exploited and threatened by contamination. Here, using the example of Dhaka, Bangladesh, we illustrate how interactions between aquifer heterogeneity and groundwater exploitation jeopardize groundwater resources regionally. Groundwater pumping in Dhaka has caused large-scale drawdown that extends into outlying areas where arsenic-contaminated shallow groundwater is pervasive and has potential to migrate downward. We evaluate the vulnerability of deep, low-arsenic groundwater with groundwater models that incorporate geostatistical simulations of aquifer heterogeneity. Simulations show that preferential flow through stratigraphy typical of fluvio-deltaic aquifers could contaminate deep (>150 m) groundwater within a decade, nearly a century faster than predicted through homogeneous models calibrated to the same data.