Article From News From Bangladesh archives
Scientists facing action over Bangladesh water survey - By Nikki Tait, FT Syndication Service - 10 May 2003
LONDON: A damages action that alleges British government-backed scientists were negligent when they assessed groundwater supplies in Bangladesh, is to go ahead after a ruling in the High Court in London late last week. The decision could have implications for hundreds of Bangladeshis who claim to be suffering from arsenic poisoning. It is also likely to have a broader impact on the potential liability of other scientists employed on aid projects in developing countries. "This is of great concern to the scientific community and those who fund it," one lawyer told the court yesterday.
Binod Sutradhar and Lucky Begum allege that the failure of British Geological Survey scientists to warn about high levels of arsenic when carrying out a 1992 hydrochemical survey in central and north-eastern Bangladesh endangered their lives. The two have been diagnosed with the initial symptoms of arsenocosis, a potentially fatal disease. The presence of naturally occurring arsenic in Bangladesh''s groundwater supplies is now a recognised problem, with the World Health Organisation describing it as "the largest mass poisoning of a population in history".
The British government''s National Environment Research Council had been trying to quash the Bangladeshis'' claims on the grounds that its BGS unit owed them no duty of care. The NERC also strenuously denies any negligence. It argued that the survey was funded by the government''s Overseas Development Agency, and that the subject matter of the report was agreed with that agency. It said there was no contractual relationship between BGS and the Bangladesh government, its agencies, or the claimants.
The claimants said that the report had included an assessment of the water's toxicity to humans; that the BGS knew it would be used for the benefit of individuals who drank groundwater from the wells; and that the possibility of arsenic being present should have been known to any competent hydrogeologist. In his judgement, Mr Justice Simon described the liability issue as a "novel point in a developing area of law". But, after deciding that there were too many complexities in terms of both fact and law that needed to be determined at trial, he declined to strike out the claims. But he stressed that he had not reached any view on their underlying merits.
The Leigh Day law firm, acting for the claimants, said it hoped the decision would encourage consultants working in developing countries to apply the same standards used in western countries. It said that some form of group litigation was now likely. (FY Syndication / The Financial Express )
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