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Arsenic crisis in Bangladesh - suggestions to combat the situation

Dipankar Chakraborti

School of Environmental Studies, Jadavpur University, Calcutta - 700 032, India

To combat the present arsenic crisis, we badly need the following:

  1. Proper watershed management
  2. Utilisation of our huge number of water bodies with people's participation
  3. Rain water harvesting
  4. The people should be made aware of the arsenic calamity and they must be made to realise that it is not a curse of god, or the consequence of the 'wrath of god'
  5. We must understand that, safe water, nutritious food and physical exercise are the only medicines for chronic arsenic toxicity at present
  6. The scientific community and medical people all over the world must come forward to find a solution to the problem that has put at risk 100 million people only in West Bengal and Bangladesh.

Working on West Bengal's arsenic calamity for last ten years even now we feel we are at the tip of the iceberg. Thus we need to know as early as possible the real magnitude of the arsenic calamity in Bangladesh. For that other than district level work we need in depth semi-micro and micro-level studies to get an idea of the magnitude of the situation at union and village levels.

According to WHO, the possibility of getting skin lesions exists among those drinking 1.0 mg of arsenic per day for several years. And our analytical report on water (about 10000) jointly with Dhaka Community Hospital indicates that a large sum of population is consuming above 1.0 mg of arsenic per day. Our thousands of hair and nail analyses from the affected villages indicate that 70-80 % of population has higher arsenic body burden. Thus many may not be showing arsenical skin lesions but may be sub-clinically affected. Further, if it is true that arsenic toxicity appears after several years of exposure, then the picture may actually be for more grim than it appears at present, and children our future generations are at a greater risk.

The mistake that we made in the past and are persisting with it even today is the merciless exploitation of groundwater for irrigation without ever trying to adopt effective watershed management to harness our huge surface water resources and rain water. In Bangladesh, we have large area of wetlands, a huge area of flooded river basins, innumerable ox-bow lakes and big lagoons. Proper watershed management and the use of these water bodies for pisiculture, duck-breeding, and growing vegetables on their banks with people's participation could actually help the villagers become more prosperous. Instead of taking this course, we are digging more and more tubewells knowing fully well (from West Bengal experience) that in the long run these tube-wells run the risk of contamination.

Even for irrigation, we are digging deep tubewells when we are unable to get water from the shallow tubewells during summer. Recently, a veteran geologist has in an article captioned against such reckless use of groundwater and has cited its disastrous consequences. It must be realised that water held in deep aquifers takes decades, even centuries, to accumulate, and recent rainfall does not replenish this resource. Recent isotope studies carried out in Rajasthan, India have indicated that such water can be 6000 to 10,000 years old.


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