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Article From News From Bangladesh archives

Arsenic project dumped?

A US$ 40 million International Development Association (IDA) loan for an arsenic mitigation project has run into rough weather. In the absence of any regular department or agency to take its responsibility, the project has turned into a veritable orphan, informed sources told The Independent yesterday.

Over the last four years, the Arsenic Mitigation Project has succeeded in spending only about five per cent of its fund, that too mostly in the form of office rent, staff salary among others, as there was no drive for field work.

This happened at a time when some other agencies active in the field were starved of funds, the sources said.

The Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation Water Supply Project (BAMWSP) was launched with lofty ideas directly under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare for speed and flexibility of work, concerned officials say.

The BAMWSP was to undertake surveys to properly identify the problems and viable safe water alternatives in about 200 upazilas out of 265 that were identified as hot spots in respect of arsenic contamination.

Another 45 upazilas were earmarked for work by the Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE) and the Unicef (United Nations Children’s Fund), 15 by the World Vision and eight by the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA). Work in these upazilas progressed well, but the nearly 200 upazilas directly under the BAMWSP remained uncared for.

Following the detection in 1993 of the arsenic problem, 51,000 tubewells in 61 out of 64 districts were tested by the DPHE between 1996 and 1998. The tests showed arsenic contamination in 48 districts.

Based on the findings 29 per cent of about 8 million tubewells is estimated to have been contaminated beyond Bangladesh’s permissible limit of 0.05 milligrams per litre.

But a total picture about the contamination can only emerge after a thorough investigation that should cover all tubewells that account for safe water to 95 per cent of the people.

Four years ago there were differences of opinion on the reliability of the kits and the methods used for testing tubewells for arsenic. But now with the protocol for field tests fairly established, the arsenic mitigation project is limping for lack of initiatives.

Informed sources told The Independent that Unicef and DPHE have completed the screening of all tubewells in the 45 upazilas earmarked for them, but did not have the funds to initiate testing all tubewells in the rest of the country. Nor do they have the mandate to do so until some changes are made in the BAMWSP.

The sources said that because of non-utilisation of the US$ 40 million IDA loan, donors are refusing to commit fresh money to any organisation on the plea that those willing to work for arsenic mitigation can make use of the unutilised funds. But for all practical purposes it is not available to others.

An official with experience in field work lamented, "We would have been better placed for support from donors had there been no unutilised IDA funds for the arsenic mitigation project."

Lack of work during the last four years might have brought many people taking arsenic contaminated water to the brink of arsenicosis, the first stage of arsenic- related ailments. They could be cured simply by ensuring the supply of arsenic-free safe water.

The arsenic problem, termed the biggest environmental disaster in recent times, is not getting the kind of urgency it deserves, experts say. This is because people taking arsenic contaminated water take five to 20 years to show arsenicosis symptoms, depending on the level of concentration.

According to Unicef officials, it costs around US$ one to test each tubewell. Based on this costing they might need barely US$ 8 million to test all the tube wells now in service.

An official at the World Bank, Bangladesh Country Office told The Independent that a bank mission recently reviewed the progress of work of the Arsenic Mitigation Project and opined that it should be reorganised and made effective. But no remedial step has followed from either the World Bank or the Government. ( The Independent )

Copyright © 1998 Global Amitech


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