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The use of alternative safe water options to mitigate the arsenic problem in Bangladesh: a community perspective

Md. JakariyaM.Sc. Thesis, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, Aug 2000


While the extent of the water crisis is well known in areas such as the Middle East, there are many professionals who believe that freshwater quality will become the principal limiting factor for sustainable development in many countries early in this century (Ongley, 1999). “Everything living is created from water” is an ancient quotation, which closely describes the importance of water (anon., 1977). Humans have been concerned with water from the very beginning of their existence. The quantity of water on earth appears enormous when it is considered that more than two-thirds of earth’s surface is covered with water. However, 97.2% is seawater, 2.05% is frozen water, and only 0.65% is fresh water on land and /or in the atmosphere (anon., 1977). Over 98% of available global fresh water is stored as groundwater in the saturated zones within pores and fractures in rocks (Hiscock, 1994; Jones, 1997). Consequently, groundwater comprises a significant proportion of the water resources in most countries and is an important component of the natural environment (IHP, 1991). For example, groundwater accounts for about 97% of rural drinking water supplies in Bangladesh (UNICEF, 1999). Groundwater often provides a water supply that is more reliable in quantity and more stable in quality than surface water and thus has economic and operational advantages due to reduced treatment requirements (Robins, 1990).

Until the early 1970s, the more than 100 million inhabitants of Bangladesh and neighboring West Bengal drank from shallow hand-dug wells, rivers and ponds. But pollution was causing epidemics of diarrhea, aemebiasis, polio, typhoid and other water-borne diseases. This persuaded aid agencies such as UNICEF and others to spend tens of millions of pounds sinking tube wells - steel pipes fitted with simple hand pumps- to tap the plentiful and apparently clean water in the sand and silt of the Ganges flood plain. Following this example, the rural people of Bangladesh later sank many more tube wells privately. The number of tube wells present today is estimated between 3-5 million whereas it was only about 50,000 during the British colonial rule (UNICEF 1999). But the recent discovery of arsenic in groundwater has ruined this decade-long success and the access to safe drinking water has now dropped to almost 80% (UNICEF, 1999). Collin Devis, Chief of Water and Environmental Sanitation of UNICEF rightly mentions that Bangladesh has become the victim of its own success (Independent, 2000). Therefore, it is very important that any environmental policy be developed according to proper scientific and socio-economic foundations otherwise things may go wrong at a tremendous expense without achieving any gain (Trudgill, 1990).

The following table gives some basic statistics about the severity of the arsenic problem:

Table 1: Basic statistics about Bangladesh and the Arsenic Problem

Number of total districts 

Total area of Bangladesh

 Number of total population 

GDP per capita (1998) 

Drinking water standard for arsenic (WHO) 

Drinking water standard for arsenic (Bangladesh) 

Number of districts surveyed for arsenic concentration 

No. of districts having arsenic above maximum permissible limit

 Population at risk of the affected districts 

Potentially exposed population 

Number of patients suffering from arsenocosis 

Total number of tube wells 

Total number of affected tube wells


148,393 km˛

120 million

US$ 260

0.01 mg/l

0.05 mg/l



75 million

24 million


3-4 million

1.12 million

Source: ACIC, 1998

Apart from the health concern indicated in the table, a number of social problems are associated with this hazard that have far-reaching consequences for millions of rural people. The problem is intensified when we observe that the distribution of arsenic in groundwater is not uniform throughout the country - that is if one tube well is contaminated with arsenic the next tube well (that may be a few hundred meters away) is not necessarily also contaminated. Therefore, blanket testing of all the existing hand-tube wells of Bangladesh and simultaneous provision of alternative safe water options to the affected communities are the topmost priorities in order to alleviate the problem (see Figure 1 for the distribution of arsenic in the groundwater of Bangladesh).

Figure 1 : Arsenic Contaminated Areas in Bangladesh

BRAC, the largest non-governmental development organization in Bangladesh, is testing a community-based arsenic mitigation programme in two upazilas (Administrative unit, equivalent to sub-district) of Bangladesh. To mitigate the arsenic problem, a number of alternative safe water options are available in Bangladesh. Some of these options are based on surface water and some are based on treating the arsenic-contaminated water.

The availability of different alternative safe water options is very important not only to evaluate and select the best options for a particular community but also because of the physio-cultural and socio-economic variation among communities. At the same time national policy and the influence of interest groups on bureaucrats and policy makers play an important role in promoting certain mitigation options. Although political decisions and the decisions of interest groups play an important role in implementing particular measures, in the long run socio-cultural factors and community interests play the dominant role in sustainable implementation of some new ideas or the acceptance of something new by the community. It has been observed that problems and prospects of communities depend on the communities’ perception of particular subjects which in turn depends on information and knowledge, technology, socio-economic and cultural characteristics, severity of problems, and exposure to the outside world.

It was observed during field visits that the percentage of acceptance of different alternative safe water options was not only unsatisfactory but also varied greatly among the communities in the two upazilas. In one area, the community was very much concerned about getting water from alternative safe water options but in another area, people were reluctant on getting water from arsenic-free sources. It was observed that community is not only heterogeneous on a regional scale but also on a small-scale concentration of people. This heterogeneous characteristic of communities along with some other local factors made the response pattern different and the acceptance of different alternative safe water options by the communities low. Therefore, the main intention of this study was to find the factors responsible for a different response pattern of community regarding the provided alternative safe water options, in order to develop a sustainable implementation policy for the alternative safe water options in other parts of the arsenic-affected areas of Bangladesh.


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