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Caught Between Diarrhoea Bugs and Arsenic

May 18 2012- Achieving the Millennium Development Goal of providing access to safe drinking water for its 160 million people by 2015 is a tough call for Bangladesh, which is caught between arsenic contaminated groundwater and diarrhoea-causing microbes in its ponds and rivers.

Queueing up for arsenic-free water in Bangladesh. Credit: NGO Forum

Yet, with a programme of using simple hand pumps and involving the women in affected communities, Bangladesh has managed to ensure that 98 percent of its rural population now has access to safe drinking water.

“Despite widespread arsenic contamination, over 98 percent of the rural population now has access to safe drinking water,” avers Mohammad Nuruzzaman, chief engineer of the department of public health (DPHE).

“All the 1.3 million hand-pumped tubewells we have installed for the rural population are arsenic-free. We are constantly monitoring them through regular testing in our 14 regional laboratories,” Nuruzzaman told IPS.

Hand pumps access water that is closer to the surface and has had less time to absorb arsenic. Also, very deep tube wells that reach water 500 metres below ground level are usually safe because arsenic deposits at that depth are likely to have been depleted.

“Through constant monitoring, we are adapting and improving our approach, but UNICEF will never be happy until all water supply is made safe from arsenic,” Pascal Villeneuve, representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Bangladesh, told IPS.

UNICEF has special reason to be anxious about arsenic in groundwater because the U.N. body was responsible for promoting Bangladesh’s tube well programme in the 1950s, which turned disastrous with the discovery of high arsenic contamination of groundwater in 1993.

“Currently, the Bangladesh government and UNICEF are partners in implementing the largest hygiene behaviour change programme in the world,” Villeneuve said. “This will ultimately reach 30 million people and is already reaching 20 million.”

Under this programme, arsenic mitigation is “mainstreamed,” Villeneuve explained. “Communities are being equipped with knowledge and skills to avoid arsenic poisoning while some 20,000 arsenic-safe water points are to be installed, reaching over two million people in areas that are most affected.”

Nurul Islam, project director of the programme, told IPS that the role of women is crucial. “The programme is mainly designed to empower women in 600 affected communities so that they can make decisions and demand the best options available.”

S.M.A. Rashid, executive director of the NGO Forum for Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation, told IPS: “We promote women’s participation in the arsenic mitigation project and build the capacities of women in affected communities so that the victims can decide how best to solve their problems.”

Rainwater harvesting, sand filters, traditional dug wells and alternate tube wells are among range of options on offer with beneficiaries needing to pay just ten percent of the costs.

Groundwater arsenic was first discovered in 1993 in the northwestern district of Chaipainawabganj but the issue remained buried until 1996 when doctors from the Dhaka Community Hospital (DCH) joined scientists from the School of Environmental Studies (SOES), Jadavpur University, West Bengal, India, to go public.

Dipankar Chakraborti, research director at SOES, told IPS: “The government in Bangladesh had thought that sinking deep tube wells would solve its water problems, but 40 percent of the wells turned out to be contaminated with arsenic.”

Chakraborti, who has been carrying out tests on hundreds of water samples sent to him from Bangladesh, said many tube wells in the country still show dangerous levels of contamination – though the magnitude of the problem is far less than initially thought.

Arsenic contamination of groundwater occurs in many parts of the world, including locations in India, Thailand, China, Argentina, Chile and the United States. But nowhere has the problem been as severe as in Bangladesh.

Arsenic contamination in Bangladesh was not officially acknowledged until the World Health Organisation (WHO), UNICEF and the National Institute of Preventive and Social Medicine jointly conducted a series of tests in 1995.

The enormity of the problem emerged as water samples in parts of the country revealed arsenic at concentrations of 250 parts per billion (ppb), though this is mostly limited to underground layers between 10 and 150 metres. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems concentrations exceeding 10 ppb to be toxic.

During the late 1950s, UNICEF, with the good intention of reducing infant mortality from surface water-borne diseases, introduced tube well technology. As deaths from diseases such as cholera and shigella declined, millions of tube wells sprang up across the country with disastrous consequences.

About 22 percent of all tube wells in the country are still arsenic contaminated, according to Mahmud Shamsul Gafur, who works for WHO which once described Bangladesh’s situation as the “largest mass poisoning of a population in history.”

“From what we know there are 38,430 patients suffering from various degrees of arsenic poisoning,” Gafur told IPS. “It is commendable that there is now a massive government-led awareness programme with the close involvement of women who are the worst sufferers.”

Traditionally, in Bangladesh, fetching water is a woman’s chore. Since the advent of tube wells, women have also taken on the responsibility of their maintenance and repair.

Arsenic poisoning can – apart from severely damaging the circulatory and respiratory systems, and causing kidney, bladder and liver diseases – be disfiguring. Women who suffer from the typical skin lesions tend to shy away from public gaze.

Arati Karmaker, who lives in Dakobe village of Khulna district, and has skin lesions caused by arsenic in drinking water, says she is socially isolated. This mother of three always wears a full-sleeved blouse and uses a shawl to cover the disfigurement.

“I opted for a deep tube well which is safe and can be used by other affected families in my neighbourhood,” she said.

Some experts say solving Bangladesh’s arsenic problem calls for a return to surface water, which is easily treated for microbes by boiling and does not call for the use of expensive filters. Concentrated arsenic sludge, the byproduct of filtration, presents another serious problem – that of safe disposal.

“If we do not return to using surface water quickly the problem could turn catastrophic,” says Prof. Mahmudur Rahman at the DCH. “By drilling so many tube wells we disturbed the underground environment and put ourselves in this crisis.”

But surface water sources in densely populated Bangladesh have been drying up and half of the country’s original 300 rivers have vanished. For now, the best option is still the simple hand-operated pump and constant vigil for arsenic contamination by women in the communities.

*With inputs from Sujoy Dhar in Kolkata


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