Time for Action

Jamal Anwar


  1. Whose Fault
  2. Wrong Result
  3. What is Wrong?
  4. Arsenic Contaminated Water and Disposal of Arsenic
  5. Stop and Abandon Tube Wells
  6. Project Report

I wrote an article about Sulekha almost a year ago: "Arsenic Mitigation : A Costly Delay", which ran in the Daily Star, 8. 01. 2000. Sulekha, an young girl suffering from arsenic poisoning, was then fighting for her life at 232-bed Faridpur Hospital. This month, January 2002, I visited her parent's house once again. Her mother wept when she saw me and said, "You see, here lies my princess. She left us forever four weeks after you left. Here she lies! We could not bury her beneath her beloved garnet apple tree because of the flood but now she lies close to my door."

Here lies Suekha's grave

A little girl
With a golden face,
How she cried when her
Doll playing days were over.
May her soul rest in peace.

1. Whose Fault

She stopped, took her sari to dry her tears and told me what had happened, " When Sulekha came back from the hospital her whole skin became infected and began to rot. She could hardly breath. Sulekha implored me, 'Mama, what evil have I done that I have to suffer and die? I have not done anything wrong. And yet I must suffer and die. Mama, please tell me, how long shall I suffer?'

    "O My love has gone to a far country, If God would only give me wings
    I would fly thither.
    I would go to that golden land, flying.
    We are simple women."

The story of Sulekha repeats all over the country. In most cases the cause of the suffering and death is unknown. Even Sulekha did not know. Nobody dies immediately, if one drinks arsenic contaminated water. People accept suffering and death as fate. You can not say, "Don't drink this water:" You have to give education and alternatives.

Vashan Char was declared by the NGOs as an arsenic free area. But on my visit, I found all wells dug at 30 meters are dangerously poisonous. Afsan Chowdhury, Senior Assistant Editor of the Daily Star comments (15. 01. 02):

    NGOs are generically fund seekers and now provider of employment Most of them have almost no reality beyond this. And this generally grovelling bunch conveniently represents the public face in the eyes of the donors who ultimately decide policies. Not because they want to but because they have to. The ability of the national counterparts is so low that they would not be able to formulate a policy without donor support. They are unable to disagree either because that might mean fund cuts. So it all ends up in the same basket.

    I have recently learnt that BGS have been sued in a British court for failing to carry out tests including on arsenic when under contract to DFID and working in Bangladesh. These are the people whom we hand over our fate and wait to be taken care of.

    The World Bank team was smarter, more sophisticated and certainly more duplicitous. They promised to brief everyone about their findings and of course never did.

    The last government spent more than $ l50 million buying MIG jets and a frigate to protect our national security and the borders. At a protest meeting held at the Press Club we compared the crises. India versus arsenic, India versus global warming, environmental versus military treat. People have made fun of our position when we say that the environmental security is a serious one, certainly bigger than the border issue. But face the fact, who would be insane enough to grab us?

Sulekha and other lives could have been saved, if appropriate, simple and affordable mitigation projects had addressed the problem in the last decade. But the situation is getting worst day by day. The Bangladesh Observer in an editorial comments (16. 01. 02),

    " It needs no telling that everybody moving in the donor-development circuit seems to have been jumping on the arsenic bandwagon ever since the problem surfaced but precious little have resulted as far as mitigation is concerned. But so far we have seen only a proliferation of NGOs, assorted consultants, bottled water and filter sellers and what not, catching larks, so to say, while the poisoning continues."

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2. Wrong Results

The NGO Forum aided by the Danish Developing Agency and others with impressive offices spread out so called arsenic mitigation network all over the country. Faridpur Sadar is under their project area. When we wanted to start a project in Faridpur, they wrote that they are already working in this area, and that better methods such as three peacher system or two bucket system have been very successful. The fact is that the both systems have been totally failed. Most of the areas are not yet surveyed and, in the cases where the areas were surveyed, wrong results were handed over to the rural population. It is acceptable, if people do not know the exact results of their water tests, but it is criminal if they are told that their water does not contain arsenic or is below standard although it is highly toxic and poisonous. Mohammed Zakir Hossain of Alyabad Union informed me that the World Mission has tested their tube well and recommended it safe for drinking. I found the water contains 0.50 mg/l (WHO standard 0.010 mg/l) arsenic A new well was dug at Mohammed Shafi's house under arsenic mitigation programme and was recommended drinkable.

I could not find anything on any arsenic mitigation project of the World Bank/UNICEF/DEPHE/NGOs programs for identifying wells or giving alternative choices. These projects have been presenting their agenda at international conferences and have informed us about their programs (highlighted with boldly decorated words) on the Internet. But the villagers who are suffering do not know anything about these people. If they bring water samples to DPHE for analysis, they are turned away because DPME says they do not have chemicals. Shahidul of Wireless Para, Faridpur said, "They give me the wrong results, I compared with Calcutta analysis. After drilling a new well at Wireless Para, they say this water is good but I found that this water is as bad as the water from the well which made me sick.

At Alipur, Faridpur a dug well did not contain any arsenic but all tube wells contain arsenic about 0.50 mg/l and so I advised the people to drink water from dug well. They did not believe me and brought the water sample from the tube well to NGO office. They certified the water to be safe.

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3. What is Wrong ?

In January 2001 I visited NGO Forum's impressive three story office at Faridpur. NGO Forum gives training and other mitigation activities. I asked the Chief, if they had any field kits or equipment to analyse arsenic in drinking water. The information that I obtained that they do not analyse any water but they distribute the arsenic kit (Merck- Germany) to different NGOs, who successfully mitigate arsenic!!!

I went to one of the NGOs at village Ambikapur and requested to lend one of their arsenic test kits. I tested several poisonous wells with the borrowed test kit and found that they show absence of arsenic. I found that test chemicals have become inert. When I looked at the test kit box, found that it should be preserved in a dry place and at a temperature between 15-25 C. Average temperature in Bangladesh at the moment is above 28 C and humidity is about 80-90%.

I could not find any protective measures by any of these NGOs. Now who is going to be responsible for misinforming those who were advised that their water is safe? The great consultants and their counterparts who sit in air-conditioned decorated rooms in the capital should look for the needful!!!

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4. Arsenic Contaminated Water and Disposal of Arsenic from Municipalities Supply System

A recent study has revealed that hundred thousands of people of 28 municipalities of Bangladesh are drinking arsenic contaminated water from pipeline water supply system. The British Geological Survey reported that deep tube wells are safe but it is not true. The deep tube wells of Faridpur (Anwar, All Quite On Arsenic Front, 2000) contain very high amount of arsenic. At Gopalganj town deep tube well supplying water to more than 10, 000 people contains arsenic concentration of 0.177 mg/l. Similarly high concentration of arsenic is found at Chauadanga, Kishorganj, Laximpur, Magura, Makikganj, Narail and Khustia district towns (Chowdhury, 2002).

Arsenic sludge is dispose of nearby water.

However, arsenic can be removed through oxidation, coagulation, sedimentation and filtration. Additional basins for such are required not high tech. Bangladeshi architects and water engineers can solve the problem, if they act according to the requirements of the country and not the requirement of the donors. We have seen recently constructed water purification unit at Faridpur town aided and designed by the Dutch Aid, supplying contaminated water and disposing arsenic sludge in the Kumar River!!!

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5. Stop and Abandon Tube Wells

At the end of 2001, Bangladeshi officials admitted that some 80 million people - more than 65% of the country's population - live in arsenic-contaminated areas (Chowdhury, The Daily Star, 10. 01. 02). Our surveys show that many of the villages where two years ago the wells did not show arsenic concentration above standard are now highly contaminated.

People can develop the habit of drinking water with iron, especially when it is freshly pumped. About 70-80 percent of arsenic is reduced with the sedimentation of iron, if it is kept overnight Most people ignore this warning. Especially in winter months they ask for freshly pumped water because it is warm. When I request them not to drink, they smile, "We have to die someday!"

Tube wells are sunk on contaminated aquifers. Cheap PVC plastic pipes are used to sink a well, and they cannot be completely pulled out, when well is moved to other place. This is an easy way to further contaminate aquifers with organic and inorganic pollutants. This practice is also followed when making deep wells for agriculture. Contaminated water from upper aquifers flows directly to deeper aquifers. This has happened in Faridpur and other districts, where most deep aquifers are contaminated with arsenic. We have repeatedly warned to sink new wells. But international organisations/organisations attached to arsenic mitigation activities did not care at all. British Geological Survey's report gave the impression that deep wells are unaffected by arsenic poisoning (BGS, 1998). Many deep wells were sunk without sealing contaminated aquifers under arsenic mitigation project, thus contaminating precious deep aquifer with arsenic.

Bangladesh has to forget using tube well water and money should be spent for alternative water as:

    • Water from Dug Well
    • Rain Water
    • Protected Pond Water
    • Community based Water Supply.

Use of rain water is not accepted by the rural population. They collect water from the roof but after one day they can see organisms swimming in the water. The roofs of rural area are shaded by trees and vegetables to protect people from the heat. The crows and birds drop biological contaminates. Rain water can be used only during rainy season in Bangladesh.

Pond water is an alternative arsenic free source but fish farmers use highly toxic chemicals such as aldrin/dieldrin (The Dirty Dozen) and chemical fertilisers to kill predator fish before releasing fish fry. During dry season excessive growth of algae takes place. In the rainy season, rain water drainage from the catchment area brings brings a lot of suspended sediment and makes the surface water highly turbid. Slow sand filters become clogged and ineffective. Pond sand filter is not effective in removing all biological contaminates (BRAC, 2000).

At present effective alternative is Community based Water Supply and Water from Dug Well.

The construction of dug wells that existed 30 years ago has almost vanished from the country. Advantages of dug wells are.

  • Dug wells are indigenous technology in Bangladesh.
  • The wells are cheaper and easier to construct and less susceptible to bacteriological contamination (BRAC, August 2000).
  • Natural biological filtration occur, when water percolates through sand bodies (develop microbial flora whose metabolism contributes to the effectiveness of removing effluents)
  • In dug wells within the standing water simple sedimentation take place and has been found frequently a substantial reduction in BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand).
  • Natural iron coagulation and settlement occur within standing water (decrease in arsenic, suspended solids, ammonia, nitrate and phosphate content).

Protected dug wells provide acceptable bacteriological quality but usual investigation and monitoring methods are inadequate in Bangladesh.

In fact diarrhoea, which may be caused by bacterial, viral or parasitic infections is responsible, according to some estimates, for six million deaths per year. We intend to introduce water without pathogens (bacterial, viral, parasitic) and enteric diseases. The following methods for dug holes are suggested:

  • Dug holes can be constructed only during dry season (at the lowest level of ground water) for the safety and guaranteeing water supply throughout the year.
  • Experienced dug well constructors will lead traditional methods of constructing dug wells.
  • Selection of well position will be taken after evaluating local groundwater movement, distance from sanitary and pollution from agriculture and animal wastes etc.
  • Lithologs of dug wells will be documented to provide optimal information on, geological environment of sediments, aquifers and regional setting of dug wells.
  • A thick layer of clay mixed with jute will be placed around the wall of the well to prevent contamination from the shallow ground or from the surface and collapsing of the wall. This will be further protected through lining of terra cotta rounded clay rings. Converted hand pumps and roof with bamboo material or tin are constructed after the completion of dug wells. The wells are covered and water is drawn from the well using hand pump (tube well).

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6. Project Report

Millions of school children (5-17 Years old) are drinking arsenic contaminated water. Almost 80 percent of rural population is analphabetic. Arsenic mitigation can be highly successful, if school students can be educated and transfer their knowledge to their parents.

We intend to introduce 500 arsenic free water units for 500 schools in the rural area of Faridpur district. In other words, 25,000 students will get arsenic free water, education and environmental consciousness that will influence their parents. More than 60 percent of the students in rural Faridpur are women.

After reviewing present situation on the basis of peoples acceptability and tradition the following aims have been suggested:

  • Our goal is to help these people help themselves escape death. By the people, for the people, using simple, affordable methods.
  • Enhance traditional wisdom to combat arsenic poisoning and environmental degradation in rural Bangladesh;
  • Priority of the project is to give people an immediate cheap solution. Our studies show that "Open Dug Holes" is the simplest solution. But we aim to obtain waterborne disease free water at affordable means.
  • Arsenic contaminated water from the tube wells will be removed by simple clay pot filter (Sun-air-Clay Pot Method). The villagers will do production and maintenance of the filter. Villagers will produce clay pots, sand filters, microbial disposal etc. and later distribute to other villagers and thus a rapid mitigation project can spread all over Bangladesh.
  • To find out alternative arsenic free water. Experience has shown that tube wells near water pond contains less arsenic, at particular depth water is arsenic free, aquifer on channel sand in particular area arsenic free etc.
  • Introduce Village Home garden for medical and bio-pesticide production. Home garden represents the blending of knowledge gained by ecologists studying the dynamics and stability of tropical ecosystems with the knowledge of farmers and agronomists on how to manage the complexities of food producing ecosystems.
  • Women's participation.
  • Cultural and traditional heritage.
  • Stop using aluminium, polythene products and use of natural products.


Open dug holes do not exists in Bangladesh. Before UNESCO abandoned dug wells, replacing them with hand-pumped tube wells about 30 years ago, dug holes were very common in Bangladesh. The use of dug holes can be seen in North Bengal Mahastangar since third century B.C. Dug well is an indigenous technology and thus social acceptance is very high.

BRAC, the largest NGO of Bangladesh with pocket full of financial backing from international donors intended to construct two new dug wells in Jhikargachha upazila (sub-district), one of the worst arsenic affected areas. But it is not understandable, why they failed to do so with the best research evaluation department and excellent network all over Bangladesh!!!

We have successfully installed the first experimental dug hole with hand pump at village Ambikapur:

Advantages of dug wells are.

  • Dug wells are indigenous technology in Bangladesh.
  • The wells are cheaper and easier to construct and less susceptible to bacteriological contamination (BRAC, August 2000).
  • Natural biological filtration occur, when water percolates through sand bodies (develop microbial flora whose metabolism contributes to the effectiveness of removing effluents)
  • In dug wells within the standing water simple sedimentation take place and has been found frequently a substantial reduction in BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand).
  • Natural iron coagulation and settlement occur within standing water (decrease in arsenic, suspended solids, ammonia, nitrate and phosphate content).

Soil Purifies Water

Santee, California, USA, a suburb of San Diego provides unusual approach to sewage treatment. Water is pumped from oxidation ponds into one or another of the basins, where it slowly soaked through soil. The water is purified variety of ways while it is contact with the soil:

  • First, it is filtered ; contaminants in the waste water become lodged in the voids and spaces that exist in all soils, much as occurs in an activated carbon filter (Coffel, 1991).
  • Some toxic are rendered harmless when they react with elements in the soil;
  • Others become part of the soil;
  • Countless microbes inhibit in most soil. Micro-organisms in soil remove nitrogen, germs, bacteria, and viruses.

State officials of Santee were far from convinced that the system would produce really clean water. They were especially concerned that viruses would find through the system.. However, after extensive testing, with special attention to viral organisms, the state approved the water.

Soil is, in fact, more resilient in handling the constantly changing blends of toxic materials. The diverse community of organism present in soil are better able to react to changes in the chemistry of the waste water to be treated. Soil filters are more effective when plants are grown on them.

Surface water percolates through (4-6 meters) soil, silty sand and accumulates in fine to medium sand (aquifer) of dug wells. If dug wells are constructed with proper care, natural biological system removes nitrogen, germs, bacteria and viruses.

Our ancestor knew this wisdom. Even now people say, "Drink crystal clear water. Don't drink water with micro-organisms!"

Foreign aid experts do not understand our culture and can not speak local language. The project disappears as soon as they leave the country. The beneficiaries are mainly their industry and partly local contractors and consultants. Afsan Chwdhury, a Senior Staff Reporter of Daily Star (15. 01. 02) reports:

    I once attended a meeting at UNICEF. When I mentioned the need to look at all water sources including surface water use and mentioned that we had successfully carried out experiments to show that, a lady who represented the British NGO Water Aid sniggered and said, " I don't understand the local people. At the first excuse they want to jump back to the pond." There was approving laughter all around.


Early morning of December 26th, 2001, we met Sk. Khoash, an old man of age 83 used to construct dug wells thirty years ago. Mr. Khoash is also an well known folk meditation singer. When I requested him to make a dug well, he smiled, "In many long long years I made thousands of dug wells. But now I am old." After repeated request he agreed to construct dug well with his son and grandson.

Constructor Bayati (Village Concert Musician) Mannan is proud of Arsenic free Disease free Dug Well with hand pump and filter (January 2002). This is the first Dug Well after 30 years at Village Ambikapur, District Faridpur. Hundreds of people drinking water from here. Local tea shops made advertisement - "Arsenic Free Tea Available Here". People is getting inceptive to make their own well. Most people does not know that dug wells are arsenic free. Thirty years ago each house had a dug hole for drinking water.

I was astonished to hear about his knowledge on ground water, capillary pressure, casing mechanism, oxygen content in hole and water and disinfections of water by traditional wisdom. His long haired son Mannan, an well known Bayati (Folk Concert Singer), cannot only make dug hole can also play excellent flute and violin.

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