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Now That Time Is Fast Running Out

by Sylvia Mortoza

The World Bank has recently conducted a series of high level meetings consisting of water experts from all over the world plus local government agencies, donors and other interested parties. However, as these meetings were inconclusive, the WB is contemplating a myriad of approaches aimed at ridding the people of Bangladesh of arsenic in tube-well water. In view of their claim that a lack of reliable data has made decision-making virtually impossible one is constrained to ask how they propose to do it because, according to reports, they are not able to formulate a complete picture of the range and extent of arsenic contamination in the country.

Under these conditions it is a fair assessment that both short term and long term plans to mitigate the problem has already run into substantial difficulties. This fear has been fueled by the doubtful nature of the local survey undertaken to determine the nature and the extent of arsenic contamination in the region under a project entitled The Emergency Arsenic Project which has been funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reportedly without any responsibility for conducting the project. However, an official of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has conceded that the tests being carried out might give misleading results and might affect future programmes that would be based on it.

Local experts however, say that the data so far collected is generally reliable but, as doubt has been cast on this reliability, the WB would like to resolve this problem through the establishment of a data base to be fed with new data gathered during new surveys of suspect areas. However, as new surveys will take time, this will delay any project taken up for mitigating the problem. As many of the local experts believe we are now running out of time, any further delay in tackling the problem may result in widespread cases of arsenic-poisoning and ultimately additional deaths.

However, the WB is also reported to be going ahead with its four year long plan of action which will cover all the known arsenic-affected areas but even so they are reportedly handicapped by the absence of detailed maps as maps have not been made available to them. This is a serious charge because the absence of reliable maps makes it impossible to plot in detail the affected thanas, villages, tube-wells, etc.

Some maps have been produced by different agencies, both local and foreign, which although highlighting the districts where contamination has been confirmed, lack in detail. Yet another group have prepared a few digital maps on the basis of satellite images, but these are also not clear and the few places that have been marked as the location of the affected tube-wells are too few to give a composite picture of contamination.

On the practical side at least one member of the WB team says he is working on a plan to reduce arsenic at source within eighteen months and will bring relief to about 70 per cent of those known to be drinking arsenic-contaminated water. But we would like to point out that, no matter how good the plan or effective the outcome, this still leaves 30 per cent of those at risk outside its purview. Translated into numbers this might means that 20 million people will not be brought under any public health programme.

It may seem to many that the WB team is down-playing the threat by saying arsenic has been present in this region ever since the delta was forming and although this may be true, and arsenic may have come down river from the Himalayas, the presence of arsenic in ground water is only a fairly recent discovery, and became a threat to human life and health only after too much sub-soil water was withdrawn for irrigation purposes. In other words, during the lifting of water by the use of pumps, air has managed to get in and dissolved the arsenopyrites through a process called oxidization. Once the arsenic got mixed in with the water, possibly during the late eighties or early nineties, the situation has become explosive but as stopping the use of ground water for irrigation is too difficult an option for Bangladesh because most of the gains in agricultural output were based on irrigation, it is unlikely that this process will be discarded. Nor is either the government or the WB, willing to discard the three million tube-wells that now supply drinking water to ninety per cent of the population because this will pose other health problems.

But the problem goes deeper than this because some cases of arsenic-poisoning are emerging. Treatment is however, minimal and mainly restricted to giving victims a handful of multivitamin tablets to help their bodies cope with the arsenic ingested when doctors and health workers know the best treatment is to stop people from continuing to drink the arsenic-contaminated water. An added confusion arises because the signs and symptoms of arsenic poisoning are not at all uniform either. For example, only one or two members of a household may be affected and at present there appears to be no explanation for why the disease is being so discriminatory. Possibly it is the state of nutrition or otherwise of the individual, for malnutrition is believed to be an important factor in the ability of a person to deal with the arsenic ingested.

The WB emphasizes that it is not the dearth of technology that is the problem for solutions are many as there are now several technologies available for reducing the level of arsenic in tube wells, or for disinfecting surface water to make it drinkable. This apart, it does seem that the World Bank is either confused or undecided on how to proceed or which action will be most appropriate under known conditions. It is also not very clear whether or not the final choice will be confined to the use of only one option/technology, or a combination of options and technologies. One team member said the technology is there but there is a dearth of management skills, especially at village level, which will make any technology difficult to maintain.

As the management of any programme for arsenic mitigation will ultimately fall to the local government officials to manage, training them to meet this disaster must begin now. Although the WB and possibly the government are emphatic that a return to surface water sources is not the answer because of the high load of faecal coliform bacteria, now that there are more cost-effective technologies on the market, this option should not be rejected out of hand for boiling surface water is not a viable option for people because of the cost and shortage of domestic fuel. Consuming pond water without treatment will of course, almost certainly result in a large number of deaths from diarrhoea/cholera etc., but it should not be completely ruled out as it may that ultimately this will be the only alternative. However the WB is bending toward chemical removal of arsenic or through filtration method. As much seems to depend on the accuracy of the tests undertaken or to be undertaken, it could be far wiser if all samples are double checked by those organisations like the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission which has the equipment for carrying out such tests using atomic absorption spectrophotometries. There are also some machines at the Science Laboratories and the Chemistry Department of Dhaka University which can be put to use for the national good. Apart from this, there are ten units of the latest equipment for testing water samples under the reliable electro analytical method. As all these facilities are capable of giving accurate readings, why they are not being utilised is an unanswered question.

As at the present time, the people seem to be left with only one of two choices, to drink arsenic-free untreated surface water with its risk of diarrhoea and perhaps a quick death or drink arsenic-contaminated water which may keep people alive up to ten years or so, before succumbing to a painful death from arsenic poisoning. But as ignorance is said to be bliss and as most villagers are ignorant of the potential disaster about to come crashing down on their heads, the temptation to leave them in ignorance may prove too strong especially as arousing an awareness of the problem could cause a panic but this would be skirting the issue. However, to inform people of what may be their fate without providing an alternative source of water - and showing them how to purify it - would be immoral therefore only correct information must be disseminated and then only when the alternatives are already in place which, as things now stand appears to be a long way off. But time is something we do not have for Time - with a capital Tee - is fast running out.

No. of words: 1500


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