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Tackling the Arsenic Disaster - Sylvia Mortoza

For a number of years now, we have been urging the government to come out of its slumber and do something about the arsenic that is in the groundwater that most people in this beleaguered land drink. It was all to no avail and though people were dying from arsenic- poisoning, our pleas for action went in vain.

Now that an NGO has added its voice to ours and is begging the government to provide financial support on an urgent basis for tackling the arsenic disaster, could it be they will have better results even though their appeal is for one particular district only admittedly one of the worst hit by this disaster still if that is a beginning, we shall be happy but as action should not be confined to only one district, as most of the population have been hit, we expect action to ensue to cover the whole country.

The NGO, Earth Identity, has been working to mitigate arsenic in the groundwater of Chandpur for three years, but progress is not as swift as they desire. But though they are emphasising the need for declaring the arsenic contamination of ground water in the country as a "human catastrophe," it is highly doubtful if the government will, as they say, "come out of the shackles of inertia in order to address the arsenic issue in the global arena." We at this paper have shouted ourselves hoarse from the rooftop, over and over again, but still nothing in the way of public funding was forthcoming for providing a sustainable solution.

How long we are to go on with the current stopgap programmes that will ultimately be probably of no use to anyone is an unanswered question. Currently, the Earth Identity Project, like many other NGOs, is providing house filters to the arsenic affected areas of Chandpur, Matlab and Companiganj of Sylhet Division for "ensuring safe drinking water" but a question that has never been answered is, just how effective these filters and other similar efforts really are at reducing the amount of arsenic being consumed? It would be very sad indeed if after all their efforts the arsenic left in the water is still of a level that will be dangerous to life if consumed on a daily basis?

Although time and time again we have warned that if this is allowed to continue, the population of Bangladesh will be decimated, how long will the government continue to wring its hands in despair before taking action? It is because of this inaction that we are now suffering from an arsenic problem of such a magnitude it is impossible to control. Never before has there been a slow onslaught disaster of this nature that threatened so many helpless people at one and the same time yet we are still to come to terms with it. Yet as far as is known, people with arsenic-poisoning began surfacing sometime in the eighties.

When someone like Prof. Quazi Quamruzzaman of the Dhaka Community Hospital says the government knew in 1985 that Bangladeshis crossing the border to India for skin complaints were being diagnosed with arsenic poisoning, we must believe him but the unanswered question remains, that being the case why was no action taken?

And why did the government not investigate the reports as ignoring it has had a predictable result. Today more than 90 per cent of the population of Bangladesh are drinking groundwater on a daily basis, it was therefore only a matter of time before people turned up in increasing numbers with arsenical skin lesions in the late stages of manifestation of arsenic toxicity.

The probability that arsenic is in the food chain too is one that should have been dealt with long ago but the public health problems Bangladesh has had to face as the result of the arsenic contamination has caused scientists and health workers to ignore this.

Without resurrecting the past it is now imperative for people to be kept informed of all aspects of the arsenic-contamination and poisoning. This of course calls for a massive public education programme. All rural clinics must be able to deal with arsenic cases including diagnosis and follow-up treatment. Mothers with arsenicosis must be warned that their progeny could be born with arsenicosis as arsenic can jump the placenta barrier and the several stages of arsenic-poisoning must be well publicised: As the arsenic problem is one of the most challenging problems to face Bangladesh, we will be failing in our duty if we ignore this threat to the people’s health.

With almost half the tubewells in the country dispensing hidden poison, the one sure way to avoid arsenic toxicity is to stop drinking contaminated water but as many parts of the country have no alternative source, we fear for the future.


Sylvia Mortoza writes from Dhaka , her email : zainah@bijoy.net

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