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
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