When the elixir of life becomes poison

The subject of arsenic in the water may seem like ancient history but the fact that very little has been done to make people realise the danger makes it a topic that should be making headlines. Not only does arsenic contamination need to be recognised, appropriate action needs to be taken as arsenic still poses a serious threat to public health. According to a report, the number of people attacked by arsenicosis in Pirojpur has increased. But arsenicosis could not have happened

overnight as it takes five to ten years of exposure to reach the stage where it becomes visible to the naked eye. Once it reaches this stage, the clinical symptoms become more pronounced and internal organs are affected.

Although ten years ago the Public Health Department marked safe and unsafe tube wells with red and green paint, the practice seems to have come to an end.

But if the polluted tube-wells are not sealed off or medicines provided, the number of sick people will increase to a dangerous level as arsenicosis is a major disease that becomes the silent terror as it creeps up on people to cause major problems and sufferings.

This is the scenario that has been allowed to develop as proper attention was never given by any government since the discovery of arsenic in tube-well water. That this gross indifference to such a critical problem was counterproductive never entered the thoughts of those in power. Those who have continued to drink the contaminated water, either out of ignorance or for lack of an alternative source, are victims of a gross lack of concern. But worse still, if seen from an economic point of view, is that arsenicosis has created a work force unfit to work.

Although in the light of recent epidemiological evidence linking arsenic and cancers, WHO decreased its recommended maximum value for arsenic in water to 0.01 mg/l Bangladesh never followed suit. But people drinking water from a source containing a level of 10-50 microgrammes have a 34 percent higher risk of death and those with the highest level of exposure (between 150 and 864 microgrammes) had a 64 percent higher risk of mortality. Exposure at relatively lower levels also carried a risk.

As groundwater is still the main source of drinking water for a large percentage of the population, what should be of equal concern to the government is the fact that one of the main problems resulting from consumption of arsenic on a daily basis is it reduces the productivity level of a person (Saturday, 16 October 2010, Independent Editoria ). .

On October 10, 2010, the Daily Star reports: Recent surveys show that about 80 million people of the country are living under the risk of arsenic poisoning as the groundwater of a vast region is contaminated with arsenic. Arsenic pollution is not only causing serious health hazards, but also affecting the environment and creating social problems. More than two million tube-wells are presently being used as the source of drinking water in Bangladesh. Out of those, only fifty thousands have so far been brought under inspection by various government and non-government agencies. The actual picture of the severity of arsenic pollution is yet to be revealed, as the entire country could not be surveyed till now.

Arsenic pollution has been creating serious social problems. The affected people have virtually become isolated from the society as nobody wants to keep any social contact with them. Nobody wants to marry any affected person. Some affected housewives were divorced by their husbands. Affected school children are not allowed to attend classes. Due to ignorance, the villagers consider the disease as curse of nature. Arsenic pollution is now considered as a great threat to the future generation. Bangladesh has become the most vulnerable place with regards to arsenic pollution. So, this is the high time to make people aware of the problem and take steps to combat it . Otherwise, nothing can stop this silent killer.

The race against time has gone badly. In the four years since The New York Times first looked into the situation, the nation's "arsenic mitigation project" has been hobbled by the unforeseen problems of so unprecedented a crisis. It is yet another example of how the world's poor continue to die from unsafe water, a threat long ago surmounted by the wealthy. Suspicious of each other, the World Bank and the government became stubbornly bound up in their mutual bureaucracies, many critics say. Most of the country's estimated 11 million wells have yet to be tested (New York Times, 14.07.2002 )

Here in the village of Chotobinar Chap, with the cancer pulling her under, Mrs. Khatun seems to have surrendered. She has no strength for work. She has no appetite for meals. She lies in a spare room beneath a thatched roof. "I feel myself fading away, and sometimes I ask God to take me," she muttered. "My husband has abandoned me. He doesn't even look at me anymore." For nearly two decades, Mrs. Khatun, 39, pumped the iron handle of a tube well sunk in her front yard beside a palm tree (New York Times, 14.07.2002).

According to Chakraborti, D. (Dec 1997) of Jadebpur University, India, about 38 million in W. Bengal, India and 50 million in Bangladesh are exposed to arsenic-contaminated drinking water. Pearce (1995) describes that hunger was the old enemy of the poor villagers, but the irrigation system brought a new and more insidious killer - arsenic poisoning. Prof Dipankar Chakraborti; Jadevpur University, India (January, 2000) recently comments on the situation in W. Bengal, India:

Poor management and negligence has compelled villagers in several districts of West Bengal to drink water contaminated by arsenic even 18 years after the calamity was first discovered. People are suffering clinically and sub-clinically, with more and more cancer cases cropping up in the affected villages. In many villages still people are not aware that they are victims of arsenic toxicity.

The situation in Bangladesh is not different. More and more areas are being discovered, but the helpless poor rural population are left under the spell of bureaucracy, greedy money hunters and the vested interest of the profit-orientated companies from all over the world continue poisoning drop by drop. In Seladi village, Noakhali, Bangladesh arsenic contents in ground water show 4000 µg /l (WHO standard 10 µg/l), the highest recorded arsenic concentration in the world (Charoborti, 2000).

Prof. Mary E. Clark of San Diego State University (1993) on "Changes in Euro-American values Needed for Sustainability" very correctly describes:

"By seeing only what we wish to see, by supposing we know far more than we do, we are ignoring the multiple signals of social, psychic, and environmental deterioration that constantly increase. This cultural refusal to "see" is a process that has happened before in history... The underlying beliefs and assumptions are taught in the upper school and universities of almost every country in the world, all of which have fallen under the intellectual spell of "the North." Thus, the elites of most nations hold similar, Western ideas of about society, about Nature, and about consequent future direction of the planet."

Professor S. M. Mohnot of Jodhpur University says:

"Our films, books, lectures and endless symposia are useful to a degree, but ultimately they miss the boat. They come from the city, and rarely filter down to the villages in crisis. What we need to see happening is a reversal - an ecological sensibility that starts at the village level."

The green revolution which was to feed the world's hungry destroyed not only the genetic base of the food supply but has also created soil erosion, polluted water and many negative consequences that are still unknown. The world has witnessed a long procession of new technologies, each of which has created, along with certain benefits, some irreversible damage. To make the best use of fertilisers, scientists concentrated on breeding crop varieties which responded well to the application of large quantities of artificial fertiliser. Bangladesh is now witnessing one of the worst environmental catastrophes in the history of mankind. Bertolt Brecht (in Galileo Galilei) said:

"When scientists, intimidated by selfish rulers, content themselves with accumulating knowledge for knowledge's sake, science can be turned into a cripple, and your own machines may only mean new oppression."

At present, Bangladesh is facing a new danger after the discovery of the new genetic varieties of crops from the industrialised countries. 75 per cent of the cropped area in Bangladesh is producing rice and rice yield has been increased considerably in the last twenty years with the increasing growth of high yielding varieties (HYVs), but poverty has not decreased. This has been achieved at the cost of intensive use of fertilisers, pesticides, construction of embankments to avoid seasonal flooding by sediment-laden rivers, and increase in tube-wells, low-lift pumps for irrigation.

Levels of knowledge can be raised, but may have little or no effect on behaviour

In Bangladesh a one-year project with Dutch funding to raise awareness about arsenic in six district towns did not achieve its hoped-for breakthrough in behavioural change. Fifty per cent of families who knew their tubewells were contaminated by arsenic continued to drink the water, despite access to new or safe sources (Hanchett et al., 1999).

Difficult to collect rainwater from straw roofs

70 deep tube-wells were now reportedly supplying water highly contaminated with arsenic, W. Bengal, India

KOLKATA, May 12: At least 70 deep tube-wells out of the 100 sunk by the state public health engineering department in North 24-Parganas villages with the aim of providing arsenic-free water have been found to contain high levels of the contaminant. These are the findings of the Arsenic Dushan Protirodh Committee (ADPC), a national-level NGO which aims to spread awareness of arsenic and prevent arsenic poisoning through water. The ADPC tested water from wells across Gaighata block in North 24-Parganas as well as urine samples of 100 school children. It found at least 70 tube-wells were now reportedly supplying water highly contaminated with arsenic. Arsenic contaminated wells were found near a primary school, health centres and at Gaighata police station. Of the 100 children tested, 99 had traces of arsenic in their urine. The committee also claimed arsenic-contaminated water has caused the deaths of 13 people in the past decade.

Mr Ashok Das, joint secretary of the NGO, claimed neither the block nor the district administration for Gaighata have taken any proactive measures to supply safe drinking water to the inhabitants of Gaighata block. He said arsenic had managed to contaminate Gaighata successfully over the past few years.

He said: “Repeated appeals by local people for safe drinking water have fallen on deaf ears. The administration claims arsenic contamination has been reduced to a large extent but this is evidently wrong. Our report shows the results of water samples tested in the laboratories of the School of Environmental studies in Jadavpur University. We also tested urine samples of 100 students of Gutri Garibpur Free Primary School. Out of these 99 students tested positive for traces of arsenic.”(The Statesman, May 12, 2006)

Up Against Arsenic Menace Grandfather's death prompted him to work for saving lives

The death of Minhaj Chowdhury's grandfather from arsenic-related diseases years ago left a profound impact on the 25-year-old entrepreneur, who is originally from Chittagong.

But it wasn't until July 2011, when he visited Bangladesh as a Fulbright Fellow of the US Department of State, that he felt the clean water crisis was well solvable. He found that high costs, maintenance requirements and low customer awareness are the reasons why community-based water filtration deployments break down within two years.

Minhaj then came up with a social business model, and co-founded Drinkwell Systems with three others in May 2013.

Social enterprises are businesses patterned after traditional capitalism models but with solutions that seek to address long-term goals such as poverty reduction. US-based social enterprise Drinkwell transforms arsenic-affected tube-wells into local profitable water enterprises by using proprietary water purification systems and the micro-franchise model.

It uses locally made ion-exchange resins, which look like small beads, to remove heavy metals and chemicals such as arsenic, fluoride and iron. And there is no need for re-mineralising the water as the system retains good minerals. Drinkwell says it can deliver water 60 times that of a conventional system, and is 17 times energy efficient at half the cost.

Developed by Drinkwell co-founder Arup K SenGupta, the filter is more efficient than the conventional one that uses reverse osmosis, the best practice at present. Reverse osmosis is a water purification system that has a biological barrier to remove larger particles from water. The company has a network of entrepreneurs that generate an income by selling clean drinking water.

It selects entrepreneurs by engaging with local prominent persons such as upazila chairmen and imams. The construction cost of each Drinkwell filter is $8,000-$9,600 (Tk 6.2 lakh-Tk 7.4 lakh), and the chosen entrepreneur can get up to 70 percent of micro-loan to install the system. The entrepreneur then sells 600 litres of water for Tk 100. Drinkwell provides technical service for each system and charges $0.49-0.59 (Tk 40-Tk 48) per thousand litres. The company's engineers make unannounced site visits to ensure that the system is kept clean and tidy. They also test the water quality to ensure compliance with World Health Organisation standards.

Drinkwell's activities are mainly concentrated in India, but its filters have been deployed across Laos and Cambodia as well. The social enterprise has more than 200 profitable deployments around the globe. It recently rolled out its water filtration technology on a pilot basis in Manikganj, with plans to establish additional 10 such tube-wells this year.

And it aims to reach 1 million people in Bangladesh within the next two years. “By launching an aspirationally-focused social business that is capable of delivering water while creating jobs, I am confident Drinkwell can eradicate Bangladesh's drinking water crisis,” said Minhaj. For his efforts to address the water crisis through a for-profit, social enterprise approach, Minhaj was included in this year's “30 Under 30: Social Entrepreneurs” list of Forbes.

The WHO reports that arsenic contamination of water, which affects more than 200 million people across 70 countries, is the largest mass poisoning in human history. Arsenic is a colourless, odourless and naturally occurring metal that is found in groundwater in South Asia in dangerously high amounts. Long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic can lead to arsenicosis, an incurable cancer-causing disease (Daily Star, May 26, 2015 ):

Vested groups cashing in on arsenic plight: WB

Over the years in Bangladesh, a surfeit of arsenic NGOs with some honourable exceptions engaged in arsenic studies, research and mitigation, have been vending some business wares to extract good commerce out of the menace of arsenic contamination. Arsenic in water now threatens and affects six hundred million (six crore) Asians, of whom three hundred and fifty millions (3.5 crores) are in Bangladesh.

Besides, there are many quarters, according to an international study conducted by the World Bank and the Water and Sanitation Programme, who are pursuing their diverse interests, not always humanitarian, centring the arsenic issue.

Politicians in the affected regions are in a dilemma as to how to tackle the arsenic menace, while the donors and the international financing institutions are reluctant to deal with it, the study says.

‘The political economy is such that many actors continue pursuing their own interests, not necessarily in a cost-effective manner conducive to solving the issue or to the benefit of those affected by arsenic,’ says the study. ‘The arsenic crisis has opened up a new market, not only for NGOs, but also for investors in the water sector.’ The study—‘Arsenic contamination of groundwater in South and East Asian countries’—was released on April 1 at the bank’s headquarters in Washington DC.

The growing arsenic problem has revealed the dangers of groundwater development without consideration of water quality in tandem with water quantity. ‘Politicians are in a dilemma as they fear promoting another solution that, in the long run, might be detected to be inappropriate or detrimental,’ the study says. Not surprisingly, in Bangladesh politicians prefer to promote relatively non-controversial options, which include digging of wells, rainwater harvesting, pond sand filter, installation of deep tube-wells, household water treatment and community water treatment facilities, in spite of their short-term health risks, lack of effectiveness, and low social acceptability among the arsenic-affected people.

‘On the other hand another stakeholder group, donors and international finance institutions, are cautious to deal with arsenic, as they have been under close and serious scrutiny for the quality and effectiveness of the water supply investments in the region,’ the report points out. This has become all the more clear since the lawsuit against the British Geological Survey by some affected patients from Bangladesh.

Especially during the water decade [1981-1990], international aid agencies strongly promoted groundwater as a safe source, particularly in rural areas, and financed and promoted water supply projects that were wholly reliant on groundwater. ‘There is no magic bullet to get rid of the arsenic menace that has created a challenge for the Bank and the governments as well,’ said Karin Kemper, senior water resources specialist of the World Bank, while presenting the outcome of the study. ‘Fifty years back, tube-well water was not a problem for Bangladesh,’ said Akbar Ali Khan, the alternate executive director of the bank. ‘Now it is a problem as there are 1.2 million tube-wells in the country.’

‘One solution might not be the permanent solution,’ said Akbar, a former finance secretary of the Bangladesh government. ‘We should encourage multiple approaches to solve the issue.’ Due to the carcinogenic nature of arsenic, the World Health Organisation has issued a provisional guideline for maximum permissible concentration of arsenic in drinking water — 10 micrograms per litre.

But most developing countries, including Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan, still use the former WHO-recommended concentration of 50 micrograms per litre as their national standard of arsenic in drinking water, particularly due to economic considerations and the lack of tools and techniques to accurately measure such low concentrations, the study points out.

Many of the physical consequences resulting from groundwater contaminated by arsenic have emerged in the recent years as a result of the increased use of groundwater from tube-wells for drinking and irrigation, it said.

In terms of the number of affected groundwater sources and the population at risk, the problems are greatest in Bangladesh, but problems have also been identified in Indian provinces adjoining Bangladesh, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. Much of the arsenic distribution is linked to the occurrence of young sediments in the region’s large alluvial and deltaic plains, including the Bengal basin.

Despite the improved understanding of the occurrences and distribution of arsenic in groundwater, there remains some uncertainty as to the precise nature of the source, mobilisation and transport of arsenic in aquifers. Moreover, the ability to predict arsenic concentrations on a local scale is poor and probably will always be so. Hence, blanket testing of individual wells in affected areas is necessary.

This can be a major task in countries like Bangladesh where the contamination is extensive and the number of tube-wells very large. The bank’s experts, however, said the arsenic menace should be tackled at the national as well as local and international levels.

‘This is not a Bangladeshi issue; it is an international issue,’ said Karin Kemper who, along with Khawaja Minnatullah from Bangladesh, prepared the policy report of the study.

She said the public health effects of arsenic are a reality and they need to be taken seriously. ‘As the effects of arsenic are long-term, it is likely that arsenic-related diseases, with and without fatal outcomes, are going to increase over the coming decades, affecting hundreds of thousands of people.’ (New Age, April 9, 2005).

US experts blame India for arsenic in groundwater

Two US environment experts in an article blamed groundwater arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh on Farakka, Teesta and other dams and barrages.

Thomas E Bridge, professor emeritus of geology of Emporia State University, Kansas, and Meer T Husain, environmental geologist of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, in their article suggested that the natural groundwater flow that existed prior to 1975 should be restored by removing all dams and barrages that India constructed in the common rivers of Bangladesh and India. ‘The removal of dams and barrages and the dredging of rivers will decrease the number of disasters in both Bangladesh and in the upstream region of India,’ according to the article titled, ‘Groundwater arsenic poisoning and solution to the arsenic disaster in Bangladesh.’

The experts agreed that the flushing of arsenic contaminants might take a long time but observed that the removal of dams and barrages affecting Bangladesh would provide plenty of water during the dry season for drinking, irrigation and industry. ‘The river water should be filtered, treated, continually tested and delivered through a closed system to provide a safe water supply for the nation,’ the article said.

A comprehensive plan not only for water supplies but associated waste disposal should be worked out for all of Bangladesh, the experts said adding, individual units within the plan could be developed on the bases of need and tied into the overall plan as it develops.

Other environmental problems such as waste disposal, flooding, water diversion projects, river control, wildlife protection, desertification, land subsidence, earthquake damage control and other environmental problems could be integrated and approached in the same way, they said.

According to them, lowering of the water table resulted in the exposure to air in the zone of aeration. This exposure resulted in the oxidation of arsenic minerals previously present below the water table in the Bengal sediments. The arsenic oxides migrated to the groundwater and were reduced to the poisonous forms in the reducing environments below the water table, they said.

Safe drinking water

Government is likely to miss the Millennium Development Goal to provide safe drinking water coverage while the one for sanitation target is expected to be attained, as a report published in this paper on Thursday quotes the Unicef. The UN development goals include a target for attaining 86 per cent coverage for safe drinking water and providing sanitation for 60 per cent of the population. According to the Unicef report, although 97 per cent of population have access to an improved water source, 27 per cent of the shallow tube well have dangerously high levels of arsenic. Arsenic contamination, thus presents a significant hurdle towards attaining safe water coverage.

Regardless of the UN’s development goals, providing safe water for the entire population is the government’s responsibility since it constitutes a fundamental right of every citizen that the state is obligated to provide.

While arsenic contamination is largely attributed to the concerted promotion of tube wells by several agencies, including the same UN agency, the problem is nonetheless reason for much concern. Apparently some 59 districts, about 85 per cent of Bangladesh’s area and about 75 million people are at risk. It is estimated that at least 1.2 million people are exposed to arsenic poisoning with 24 of million potentially exposed to such contamination.

The government, however, is apparently content with its commendable expansion of sanitation coverage. There have been few efforts of the government to increase drinking water coverage, perhaps arising out of the typical complacency that there is no dearth of water in a country that is flooded almost every alternate year.

Presumably, the same agencies that promoted increased use of tube-wells will soon begin to promote piped water supply without any stress on increasing surface water, which is of late being considered as a much safer alternative than groundwater. There should be sincere efforts to increase and conserve surface water sources from all quarters since piped water supply at rural areas remains impractical given the resources available to the government.

Rescuing the arsenic-hit GSK installs 2 plants in a Satkhira village to supply pure drinking water

gsk-plantA multinational pharmaceutical company has finally come forward to give succour to the people of Kolaroa upazila, where all the tube wells are contaminated with arsenic beyond permissible level. It is supplying arsenic-free water in Kaila village, the worst affected area. A large number of people in the area are affected with various diseases as the level of arsenic in groundwater is between 0.50 and 0.70 against the WHO permissible level of 0.05.

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has installed two arsenic removal plants wherefrom hundreds of men, women and children also from far away villages are taking drinking water. The level of arsenic was detected in a survey conducted by a local NGO in co-operation with Public Health Engineering Department (PHE) under the Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation Water Supply Project in 2001.

Observing the alarming situation, the GSK came forward and took up a project at the initiative of its Communication Manager Dr Ashok Kumar Roy. The two community-based plants have been set up on the premises of Kaila High School and Kaila Primary School at a cost of Tk 5 lakh.

Each project includes an over head tank, water treatment plant and a deep tube well. The two plants purify about 2400 litres of water a day and supply it to villagers, who pays only Tk 10 per family a month. It is not a business venture. The money thus collected is spent to run the two plants.

A community-based body styled Association for Arsenic Mitigation formed by the villagers manages the two plants. It is headed by Kaila High School Headmaster Abdur Rouf. GSK has also placed Tk one lac with a local bank as fixed deposit in favour of the committee on condition that it will draw the monthly interest only to meet monthly expenditure. "We have so far covered 450 out 500 families in Kalia village under the project," Abdur Rouf told this correspondent during a recent visit to the village.

"We will be able to cover the rest 50 families under the project soon", he said. The villagers are also being motivated not to use arsenic contaminated water (Daily Star, august 5, 2005).

Prof Anu blames consultants

Prof Anu was addressing a view exchange meeting on "corruption in different sectors" at Jatiya Press Club in the city, organised by Chhatra-Shikhak-Peshajibi-Janata, a citizens' platform led by journalist Syed Abul Moksud. The Jahangirngar University professor questioned how the expenditure of Padma Bridge project was doubled within one year from Tk 10,000 crore to around Tk 21, 000 crore.

He also observed mismanagement in Dhaka-Chittagong Railway project, saying the cost was estimated at Tk 1,000 two years ago, and now it st has been doubled. The economist said the minister (communications) is busy taking the big project while the condition of the roads and highways of the country is very poor.

BNP joint secretary general Ruhul Kabir Rizvi said foreign donors are "plunging the country into destruction" putting pressure on the government due to lack of minimum understanding among political parties. He said corrupted persons are stronger in the political parties while some politicians are destroying democracy, reporting blames of each other to foreign diplomats, he added.

The BNP leader also expressed concerns over abduction of people, which, he said, is an alarming signal for the country. He said the citizens' platform will hold a protest rally against mismanagement and corruption in different sectors including communications ministry on October 20 at Central Shaheed Minar. Mahmudur Rahman Manna, former organising secretary of Awami League also spoke at the programme ( The Daily Star , 15. 10. 11).

1. Green Revolution.
2. Arsenic Mitigation - A Costly Delay (article)
4. Facing arsenic disaster
6.Failure of Danish Development Help (Danida)-DPHE Two Bucket Arsenic Removal Project:
7.Water of poison creeps in as silent killer
10.The Poor Suffer
12.Latest Report: November 2003
13.Critical Reports
15.Facing arsenic disaster - Too much time has already been wasted, April 2007
16. Emergency Water Supply: Arsenic Removal Filters?
17. Water map shows billions at risk of 'water insecurity'

Last Modified: May 26, 2015

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