Stijn Hoorens and Pepijn Koenders

The Daily Star Fri. November 26, 1999

Stijn Hoorens studies Systems Engineering, Policy Analysis and Management and Pepijn Koenders Civil Engineering at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands

Arsenic contamination of ground water has ominous proportions. The situation calls for an integrative approach towards mitigation, involving government and none-government organisations and the donors. Unfortunately, co-ordination appears missing, write Stijn Hoorens and Pepijn Koenders

ARSENIC problem in Bangladesh and West Bengal is so massive that it tends to overwhelm those who attempt to do anything about it. Many international and domestic organisations are trying to organise a concerted effort to address this problem. Generally, five directions of arsenic mitigation efforts can be observed: monitoring shallow tubewells, installing (and monitoring) deep tubewells, surface water treatment, rainwater harvesting and treatment of contaminated water.

It is vital to measure the extent of arsenic concentration in all the four million shallow tubewells and to use only those that have low concentration for drinking and cooking purposes. Only one per cent of all wells has so far been measured. This indicates that millions of Bangladeshis may still be using contaminated water.

Secondly, maps of arsenic concentration show that the south-eastern part of the country, and the city of Dhaka, are free from serious contamination; there, water is extracted from deep aquifers, more than 100 metres in depth. Still, several difficulties do exist; some deep tubewells have been detected with arsenic contamination. Supporters of deep tubewells claim that contamination here is due to improper installation. On the contrary, so little is known about the underlying processes that no-one can assure that these deep aquifers will remain arsenic-free in the coming decades.

In a great number of rivers, canals and ponds Bangladesh have enough surface water available for drinking purposes. However, increasing pesticide concentrations from agricultural run-off and toxic waste from industries pollute surface water, making use of this alternate resource hazardous. Besides, pond water supply is susceptible to drought.

This also applies for collection of rainwater. Due to hydrological conditions, the water availability is limited by rainfall intensity. Storage capacity is needed, though this is precarious for hygiene.

Technologies for removal of arsenic from contaminated water are widely known and available. In fact, by adding an oxidant and an absorption-chemical nearly all the arsenic can be separated from water. Nevertheless, these chemicals may have long-term impact on people's health in case they are not properly removed along with the arsenic. Alum, for example, can be used in this process, but is suspected to cause neurological damage. In adding chemicals, there may be a risk of replacing one poison with another.

Each of these mitigation directions seems to have major execrable aspects which naturally can be dealt with by means of sophisticated techniques. However, is a strong technical assessment sufficient for successful implementation?

There is a difference between a solution and a mitigation measure. Mitigation measures are just part of an overall strategy towards an effective solution. Social, cultural, economical, technical, geographical, institutional, hydrological and other differences between regions and communities within Bangladesh as well as between Bangladesh and other countries make assessment of strategies rather troublesome.

Certainly, these factors are present at the grassroots level. Observations and interviews make clear that position of women is essential in this regard. After all, it is they who play a pivotal role in household water management. Although some men claim that other members of the family also participate, not a single man carrying a pitcher has been noticed.

This has implications for both location of drinking water source and distance between place of collection and place of consumption. In a particular case, women do not have access to a deep tubewell installed at a mosque-yard. Distance is also major deterrent in many cases. Women have a busy schedule - animal feeding, cow-dung collection, cooking, cleaning and taking care of children to name the obvious few. A walk to a nearby shallow tubewell, albeit contaminated, can save a lot of time.

In this regard the purdah system also works as an impediment. This phenomenon familiar throughout the country and not only restricts Muslim females but also those of other religions. Fetching water over large distances is avoided whenever and wherever possible

On the community level, a great deal of individualism can be noticed. Operation and maintenance of several kinds of both household-based and community-based options are rather limited. This can be subscribed to lack of education and awareness on one hand, and dearth of activism towards rural development and in particular arsenic mitigation on the other. Overpopulation combined with lack of financial resources made inhabitants of Bangladesh learn how to stand up for oneself and even to give individual interests higher priorities. This can be interpreted as a derivation of the Dutch NIMBY (Not-In-My-Back-Yard) effect. For this reason, the extensive tradition of corruption and bribing is embedded in the system mainly in the lower-level government departments and, local and regional organisations.

On the field level it is manifesting in another way. People are reluctant to contribute to tackling several development problems; it is either too much capital-intensive or too much labour-intensive. Several mitigation options require donation of a piece of land or a pond. Therefore, many of villagers adopt the Not-In-My-Pond approach; after all, with donation and preservation of a pond for drinking water purposes many economic activities (e.g. fishery) would disappear.

Many options of alternative water supply failed in the past. Achieving changes in traditional patterns turned out to be laborious. Without strong motivation of the community every desired attitudinal change is bound to fail. Although 30 years ago ponds were a common water resource, currently people seem reluctant to shift towards options that require more attention than easy-maintenance tubewells.

In order to ensure operation and maintenance of, for instance, a pond sand filter (PSF), institutional facilities are required. However, participation, covering all social hierarchic levels, in arsenic mitigation process does not seem forthcoming, for it requires a drastic, and undesirable, cultural shift. The lowest social layer will be difficult to mobilise. The poorest can barely afford to offer money or time for a village committee or maintenance of installations.

Therefore, local communities allow each of the families that are making use of the water resource to contribute an amount they can afford. Sometimes, contribution from 30 families for a deep tubewell of Tk. 5000 varies between Tk. 0 and Tk. 800. The poorest families claim that they cannot afford to contribute even the minimum. The fact that other members of the community accept this, as it is ingrained in the (Islamic) religious belief of common right for drinking water, hardly any problem is there in sharing water resources. Anyone is allowed to use another's tubewell as much as one possibly need, gender, social or economical status or religion do not matter. However, besides community concern personal objectives play a role. Amount of donation reflects the social status of a particular family. Thus, donating nothing is accepted according to the community norms, but the future social respect decreases considerably. Hence, the system maintains itself, because relatively well-off people who can afford to contribute a large amount of money or to become a member of a village committee, are able to derive more privileges from their increased status; nobody seems to act out of philanthropic objectives.

Why is it that investment of so much money returns so little? The crux of this problem doesn't seem to lie in the grassroots. Donor agencies compete with each other by means of extensive large-scale projects. Co-ordination among each other is nearly non-existent, though this is extremely desired for an integrative approach to tackle the problem.

In their mitigation strategy donor agencies are using countless NGOs and seem to avoid governmental organisations along all aggregation levels. Although the DPHE (Department of Public Health Engineering) is formally in charge of the Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation and Water Supply Project (BAMWSP), this department is hardly involved in arsenic mitigation. Despite the quite impressive network of DPHE thana, district and division offices, these departments are hopelessly subject to inefficiency, bureaucracy, corruption, lack of capacity, lack of capabilities, lack of professionals, so on, and so on. A tradition of corruption and bribing makes the system reluctant to a participatory policy. After all, this would imply a distribution of money and power directed to the lower echelons; higher level people will have less income and less status due to participation.

The NGOs, in fact, have a strong commitment to the local community and their workers are highly motivated in their job. Nevertheless, these NGOs form an extensive diverse non-conform network, whereas co-ordination as well is utterly problematic. Large-scale development programmes, in which many NGOs are included, require much effort in guiding the organisations into the direction of an overall project policy.

Moreover, NGOs generally show difficulties in understanding thoroughly the technical features of the arsenic problem. Probably, the reason is that NGOs generally employ personnel less educated than their counterparts in the private sector. Because NGOs have relatively lower social status, technical NGO professionals are quite rare, especially in this country where social status is of grave import. This does not imply that nothing is being done. Some organisations conducted, as far as their abilities and their knowledge permit them, tubewell surveys and intended to implement alternatives for drinking water supply.

As it was found out, many NGOs have arsenic mitigation plans ready. These plans, however, mainly focus on ambitious sophisticated installation-based options (e.g. modern rainwater harvesting plants (RWH), pond sand filters (PSF), and arsenic removal plants). Still, NGOs are not only restricted by available knowledge and skills, but by available funds as well.

There is a structural constraints of financial resources in this sector. In this regard the most frequently heard statement is "we are still waiting for our donors, but within a few months the project is expected to take off". Thus, these capital demanding alternatives still only exist on paper, and presumably will continue to be. Desire for these installations is probably due to importance of social status and prestige. After all, would it not be nice to show off these ingenious PSFs and RWHs and gain respect from other colleague-organisations. Thereby, installation-based options are favoured because of personal gains. Each station is left with a proportion of the financial stream; the larger the stream, the larger the proportion.

The strength of these NGOs must be found somewhere else. Due to their strong commitment at the field level, those organisations are extremely useful in awareness building. The hard- and software is available and it requires very limited extra investments. Neither additional financial fund nor technical professionals are needed.

Attention should be directed towards conditions at the lowest level: a bottom-up approach is indispensable. Mitigation measures are widely available, however they should comply with the requirements of the community concerned. In the observations stated above, these factors have been recognised.

Addressing these findings to the possible mitigation measures, several recommendations can be made. Exemplary, tubewell-based options, such as deep tubewells, require extensive monitoring programmes, by means of GIS (Geographical Information System). As it has become apparent, Bangladesh lacks in institutional facilities necessary for a certain monitoring system. Although human empowerment cannot be regarded apart from resource management, installation of participatory institutions would require a change in existing social patterns within a village community that is neither desirable nor workable.

In the process of mitigation of arsenic contamination one needs to distinguish a short-term strategy from a long-term strategy. Tactics, part of the short-term strategy should be appropriate for immediate effective implementation, given the objective of providing arsenic-free water to the population of rural and urban areas. According to cultural and social constraints immediate mitigation measures are likely to be addressed to women in particular, accompanied by a strong committed awareness campaign. Home-based arsenic treatment, despite its presumable long-term health effects, could well be part of this strategy.

Long-term measures, however, should come up to a sustainable system to provide safe and clean water drinking water and may require a certain period of implementation, since institutional framework needs to be established, installations need to be built, funds need to be raised, etc. Moreover, a long-term strategy needs to be robust in different future scenarios. Thus, as long as it is unknown whether the deeper aquifer will be contaminated in future, installation of deep tubewells is not a feasible tactic for a long-term strategy assessment.

It is not only a large-scale education on arsenic awareness (eventually compared with other development issues, e.g. sanitation) at the micro level that is necessary. An integrative approach towards a process to mitigate the effects of arsenic contamination demands co-ordination and co-operation among NGOs, donors and governmental organisations, which is not present at the moment.


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