Article From News From Bangladesh archives
Arsenic-free water still piped dream - 22 Jan 2003
By Naimul Haq
Even more than six years after the declaration of groundwater arsenic contamination a national emergency, the government could not provide safe drinking water to affected areas. According to an estimate, about eight crore people in 61 districts out of 64 are now exposed to arsenic contamination. Some of the districts have arsenic more than the permissible level. In many districts, both hand-pump tubewells and production wells or deep tubewells were contaminated.
Laboratory-tested water samples showed that more than 50 per cent of the tubewells -- both private and government-owned -- were found contaminated. Four million tubewells have been installed in the country since the late 1970s. The government and the World Bank (WB) have so far spent Tk 43.91 crore, a portion on mitigation on the priority basis in some most affected villages. Still, a large number of people have no access to safe drinking water.
Of the 714 mitigation schemes, as identified by the government, less than 100 have been completed. Until now, the project could not initiate action programmes on 11 municipalities where arsenic was found in production wells above the permissible level of 50 parts per billion. However, alternative measures have been taken in Gopalganj, Faridpur and Chuadanga municipalities.
Despite repeated requests, the government has not yet taken any step to supply safe drinking water to Chapainawabganj, one of the most affected municipalities, where four out of 16 production wells have been shut down due to high levels of arsenic. The rest also affected beyond the permissible level keep supplying water.
In February 1999, the WB and the government implemented a 44.4 million dollars project -- Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation Water Supply (BAMWSP) -- exclusively for safe drinking water. But less than 23 per cent of the funds could not be utilised due to bureaucratic tangles, mismanagement and corruption. A large portion of the money was spent on consultants, goods, training, salaries etc. Meanwhile, many villages in Narayanganj, Chandpur, Noakhali, Laxmipur, Jessore, Khulna, Chapainawabganj, Rajshahi, Faridpur and Comilla identified as 'hot spots' are still without safe drinking water options.
In 1996, soon after the official confirmation and government's appeal to donors, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) extended help in two phases to explore the extent of the crisis. It provided two million dollars to screen 500 villages on an emergency basis. The UNDP also gave very limited vitamins and ointments for treatment of arsenic patients.
Dr AZM Iftikhar Hossain, the then project director of the UNDP-funded project, said, "There is nothing to panic. The lesions on skin will disappear if people stop using the contaminated water. They have to take vitamins for a quick recovery."
Dr Alan Smith, a senior consultant of the World Health Organisation (WHO), who was invited from the USA to recommend on the possible remedies, made similar recommendations which were largely ignored.
Chandpur is among five most affected districts in the country where preliminary surveys showed that 83 per cent of tubewell water had concentration of arsenic above the permissible level. Similarly, many villagers in Barisal, Jessore and Khulna, with over 90 per cent of the tubewells contaminated, have no alternative.
The Department of Public Health and Engineering (DPHE) in Chandpur confirmed detection of arsenic in almost all tubewells tested so far. (The Daily Star)
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