Facing arsenic disaster - Too much time has already been wasted

Arsenic contamination continues unabated

Countless editorials and reports have been published on arsenic contamination but we all know that as far as concrete results are concerned, our achievements have not been overwhelming. In fact, a recent report bares all the facts before us and we know that in the last three years 36 persons have died, 38,500 are affected and about 7 crore people face a direct threat. So far, around 50 lakh tube-wells have been checked and of them, 14 lakh, a staggering number, have been identified to contain arsenic.

Though in other countries 0.01 milligram of arsenic in one litre of water is considered acceptable, in Bangladesh, that limit is 0.05 milligram. Unfortunately, in many upazilas the level is way too high and despite the presence of the seven-year arsenic mitigation programme that started in 1998 with a budget of Tk178 crore, progress in this project has been frightfully torpid. Funded predominantly by the World Bank, this programme has had some success in creating public awareness in 190 upazilas along with training 2330 doctors and 12 thousand health workers but till today millions are still faced with the prospect of arsenic contamination due to lack of proper knowledge and viable options.

Interestingly, arsenic contamination and the layers of subterranean water are related issues because research has shown water from the top level to be contaminated. But, in the capital we mainly use water from deeper levels and thus the contamination level is almost non-existent. It would be a prudent move to use water from deeper levels for personal use and water from the upper levels for irrigation purposes. Acknowledging the unmitigated importance of awareness we feel that the campaign to raise awareness level, relevant bodies should go for aggressive publicity. Yes, we have had awareness programmes but they have not been as intense as they should have been. Already, arsenic contamination has taken a deadly form in 9 thousand villages with 80 to 100 per cent contamination and if the present move aimed at mitigation is not geared up then arsenic will continue to kill and deform.

There have been a lot of seminars but we feel that more should be done at the field level. At the same time, there must be workshops in schools and colleges in the rural areas focusing on the benefits of fresh water. Sadly, many people in the cities do not realise the importance of fresh water and in the rural areas the picture is more hopeless.

In the end, success rate can be accelerated if the government takes a two-year crash programme and is determined to reduce arsenic contamination within a stipulated time. We believe that time has come for drastic moves because a lethargic treatment will only act as a catalyst for the social malaise to develop (New Age,May 19, 2006).

Arsenic contamination is truly a serious problem that has not been given the attention it deserves and due to our inability to handle it, arsenic is now in the food chain. Arsenic contaminated groundwater has been used indiscriminately for irrigation purposes and even if the authorities maintain that household treatment of arsenic-contaminated water is a sufficient protection against the effect of consuming arsenic, the question of irrigating soils with arsenic-laden groundwater should be given immediate attention to assess the possibility of accumulating arsenic in the soil.

Its subsequent entry into the food chain through various food crops and fodder is no small matter. Keeping this in mind, it is necessary to analyse soil and vegetable samples from arsenic-affected areas to test for arsenic content. For example, irrigating a rice field with groundwater containing 0.55 mg/L of arsenic with a water requirement of 1,000 mm results in an estimated addition of 5.5 kg of arsenic per ha per annum. Concentration of arsenic as high as 80 mg per kg of soil was found in an area receiving arsenic-contaminated irrigation. A comparison of results from affected and unaffected areas revealed that some commonly grown vegetables, which would usually be suitable as good sources of nourishment, accumulate substantially elevated amounts of arsenic. For example, more than 150 mg/kg of arsenic has been found to accumulate in arum (kochu) vegetable.

Unfortunately individual and household knowledge of specific illnesses caused by arsenic exposure is poor. However it is improving due to awareness campaigns and by word of mouth. The level of education had a positive effect on individual decisions to avoid arsenic exposure. But the lack of a convenient source of safe drinking water often led people to continue drinking the arsenic-contaminated water, knowing it to be contaminated.

Certainly the discovery of arsenic in the groundwater has challenged efforts to provide safe drinking water to households in rural Bangladesh. Two nationally representative surveys in 2000 and 2002 investigated water-usage patterns, water testing, knowledge of arsenic poisoning, and behavioural responses to arsenic contamination. Knowledge of arsenicosis rose between the two surveys among women from 42% to 64% but awareness of consequences of arsenic remained limited; only 13% knew that it could lead to death.

Behavioural responses to arsenic have been limited, probably in part because of the lack of concern but also because households are uncertain of how best to respond as they have a strong preference for tubewell water even when wells are known to be contaminated. Further work conducted by the survey team highlighted the difficulties in providing alternative sources of water, with many households switching back to their original sources of water again raising the bogey of water-borne diseases. (Source: The Bangladesh Observer, April 15, 2007 ).

If organising and attending conferences is any indication of the seriousness of this government in facing the arsenic disaster then we are into happy times. In the last few days no less than three international conferences have been held in the city, the last two being addressed by the President and the Prime Minister. There could not be a firmer public expression of political will by a government than this. Now the challenge is to turn this official commitment into, to quote the President, "widespread and affordable action".

To start with we must immediately formulate a comprehensive national policy, both short and long term, to address this disaster. We also must create a structure within the government that will have a singular focus to tackle the arsenic problem. So far the location of all government activities in the LGRD ministry has been a mistake. This ministry already has its hands full and cannot be expected to address this disaster. We propose the formation of an inter-ministerial body -- perhaps a Task Force -- located at the PMO and headed by the PM herself with a very high level secretariat empowered to take quick and decisive action. Along with it we need an expert group, taken from all those who are active both within and outside the government to form the brains trust for all government policies. At the same time we must request all donors to act in a coordinated manner and with the Task Force. At present too many donors are spending a lot of money without really knowing if the resources are being effectively spent.

The biggest challenge before the nation is to provide alternative source of safe water for our people other than tube-wells. The alternative, as we see it, is only one --going back to the consumption of surface water and water collected from rain. We realise that we are talking of a massive change of a habit that has grown over the last two decades of using tube-well water. It is also extremely easy to use requiring virtually no effort in storing and preserving. However the task is not as difficult as it may seem at first. Bangladesh ranks No.2 in the world in terms of possessing fresh water reserve, most of it in our rivers and ponds, which require to be made germ free. Simple and affordable water purifying methods will have to be popularised. As for rainwater, affordable method of collecting and preserving it will have to be introduced.

As is evident from above the tasks before us are enormous, urgent and multifaceted. We are heartened by the interest the PM and the President have shown in this matter. We hope that the official conference, which will end tomorrow, will respond to most of the suggestions we have given above. The most important is that we need to act collectively and urgently (Source: Editorial, The Daily Star 15. 01. 02).

2 lakh people in Narsingdi exposed to arsenic

Nearly two lakh people of five upazilas in Narsingdi have been drinking arsenic contaminated tube well water for a long time exposing themselves to arsenic related diseases.

A survey conducted by the Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation Project with the UNICEF assistance found arsenic beyond permissible limit in 20,812 tube wells out of 1,96,195 under five upazilas of the district.

Local sources said about two lakh (2. 00000) under Raipura, Manohardi, Polash, Sadar and Belabo upazilas have been drinking water from the red-marked tube wells because of the lack of alternative sources of potable water. The public health engineering department has painted the arsenic contaminated tube wells with red colour and warned the villagers against drinking water from those.

Abdul Munnaf, a farmer of Nilakha union, told New Age that they were drinking water of the red-marked tube well as they have no means to arrange arsenic-free water. Though the number of people suffering from arsenic related diseases has been increasing steadily in the district over the years, no medical centre or counselling centre has been set up in this region to give advice to the people to protect themselves from the arsenic related diseases called ‘arsenicosis’.

The public health engineering department has installed five deep tube wells at different places in the district to supply arsenic free water. More such tube wells would be installed in the district in phases, local PHED sources said.

Arsenic contamination takes serious turn in Satkhira, S. Bangladesh

Arsenic contamination of groundwater has taken a serious turn at seven upazilas in Satkhira posing a serious threat to public health. District Health office sources said as many as 1,482 people of the district have so far been affected with arsenicosis,arsenic related diseases.

Of them, 683 are under Kalaroa, 450 under Tala, 256 under Assasuni, 65 under Debhata, and 28 under Kaliganj upazilas. The Local Government Engineering Department with the help of Department of Public Health Engineering has taken up a programme under Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation Water Supply Project to detect arsenic contamination in the tube well water.

Under the programme, survey was conducted jointly by the Community Health Development Society, Padokkhep Manobik Unnayan Kendro, Sohac Society on Health and Care World vision and some other NGO’s. According to the survey report, 68,074 tube-wells out of 95,434 in the district were found containing high percentage of arsenic.

Arsenic contamination was detected in 95.2 per cent tube wells under Kalaroa, 76.8 per cent tube wells under Debhata, 70 per cent tube wells under Assasuni, and 68 per cent tube wells under Tala upazilas. According to the DPHE, water of 16,195 tube wells out of 17,859 under Kalaroa, 16,277 out of 24,605 under Tala, 7,949 out of 12,299 under Assasuni, 6,666 out of 9,270 under Debhata, 4,202 out of 12,723 under Kaliganj, 174 out of 2,240 under Shyamnagar and 16,611 out of 33,049 under sadar upazilas was found to have contained arsenic at varying proportions.

The DPHE has red marked the highly contaminated tube-wells and advised the people not to use the water of the tube-wells. About 58 per cent of the tube wells are not safe for health, according to health officials.

Most of the people alleged that they did not have any alternative source of safe water. They urged the government to take immediate steps for arranging alternative source of water.

When contacted, the executive engineer of the DPHE,M Abdul Hamid Mia said they have installed 2,437 deep tube-wells and 1,188 Pond Sand Filter in different areas of the district to supply potable water to the people. About 5,43,750 people were now getting benefits of these deep tube wells and PSF. They also advised the people to use boiled rain or surface water, he added (BANGLADESH SANGBAD SANGSTHA, Satkhira, June 8, 2005).

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