By ANISUR RAHMAN
Nearly 80 million of Bangladesh’s 124 million population
are exposed to aquifer contamination caused by a metallic element called
arsenic forcing the authorities to reverse their campaign to drink ground
water which they once regarded safe.
Nearly 97 percent of the Bangladeshis now became
dependent on ground waters as a result of "very successful" campaigns of
past several decades by the government and the donors promoting tube wells
as a remedy to typical waterborne and diarrhoeal diseases.
Victims of arsenic poisoning
But the success story faced a serious setback in
early 1990s when the presence of the toxin was first reported from the
southern districts. Later the toxic material was detected in most other
parts of the country prompting a counter campaign against tube wells asking
people to change their behavioural pattern regarding use of waters.
In June last year, officials admitted that some
80 million people -- more than 65 percent of the population are exposed
to arsenic, the white, tasteless metallic powder which can cause skin cancer,
kidney and liver failure and in extreme cases – death. The other ailments
being caused by the element include dark brown spot on the body, thickening
of the palms and feet.
But experts are yet to reach a consensus on the
cause of the ground water contamination due to arsenic though they all
agreed that this is not a very common phenomenon.
A group of experts including the British Geological
Survey blamed the curse on the geological formation of deltaic Bangladesh,
saying arsenic is being deposited in the subsoil level over centuries,
though it was first detected in the bordering West Bengal of India in 1978.
But another major hypothesis is that the ground
water contamination is caused by exposure of arsenic compounds called arsenic
sulphides to the oxygen due to fall of aquifer level since the start of
massive extraction of ground waters through tube wells for irrigation and
drinking purpose a decade ago. Once oxidised, arsenic sulphides become
water-soluble and like drops of tea seeping from a tea bag, the element
percolates from the sub-soils into the water tables during every monsoon
But whatever might be the actual cause of arsenic
contamination; the new problem is chasing the resource-constraint of Bangladesh
like a nightmare as the authorities, ill-equipped both financially and
technically, are at a loss in curbing the fall out of the problem.
In June 2000, the Dhaka-based National Institute
of Preventive and Social Medicine (NIPSOM) tested some 1,000 tube wells
in 17 districts and found arsenic in at least 180 water pumps while the
earlier random studies said the metallic element was detected in 61 out
of the 64 districts.
Although random studies predicted the exposure of
some 85 million people in 61 districts, less than 2.5 percent of the estimated
12 million tube wells in few areas were tested under an integrated study
programme since 1996. Officially only 10,000 arsenic patients were identified
Under the current anti-arsenic national strategy,
the arsenic contaminated tube wells are being red marked at the level of
100 ppp against the maximum permissible level of 10 ppp according to the
The situation has become more difficult when experts
recently said arsenic could spread in the subsoil level and one tube well
which is safe today could be found contaminated any time in future.
The United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), which
played the key role in installing the tube wells in late 1950s, now says
at least 20 million people across the country are drinking arsenic contaminated
water everyday despite the campaign for suitable options or safe water
The monstrous disease that badly affected some 10,000
people in Bangladesh already claimed over 150 lives, according to unofficial
Soil scientists said although doctors suggest vitamins
as remedial measures against arsenic, the vegetable fibres containing vitamins
themselves contain high-level of arsenic and the consumption of such vegetables
and vegetable leaves could intensify the disease.
"It is an alarming thing that arsenic has capability
to contaminate even plants and it is extremely difficult to dissociate
arsenic from soil," said Professor Chappell, an American soil scientist.
Doctors admitted they do not have any effective
orientation on arsenic as the medical science was yet come up with any
remedy for the disease forcing them to prescribe only vitamins for little
Dr. Quamruzzaman of the Dhaka Community Hospital,
a pioneer in arsenic detection and mitigation actions, said so far one
out of every 10 arsenic victims are at high risk of cancer as there is
no effective drug against the disease.
Despite the magnitude of the disaster experts and
activists blame lack of coordination and sense of urgency in policy levels
as the main obstacles to undertaking effective arsenic mitigating measures.
"A strategic plan to save the people even in the
hot spots (worst affected areas) is missing and a sense of urgency in the
concerned level is yet to be generated," leading water expert Prof. Ainun
He added an institutional framework could not be
framed as yet despite the fact that people in many areas were still using
the poisonous water for lack of effective and alternative water sources.
Leading economist Prof. Muzaffar Ahmed identified
the donor-dependence as the main problem in dealing with the crisis and
said despite the severity of the crisis, donors were more interested to
spend money in schemes like AIDS mitigation. "Unfortunately we cannot fix
our own agenda," he deplored.
Government officials including health secretary,
Dr. Alamgir Farouk Chowdhury, admitted that problem in proper coordination
was hindering the mitigation plans to some extent, but added the government
was trying to face the disaster under an integrated system concentrating
all its ability.