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News article: Use of arsenic-contaminated water jeopardising lives of millions

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  • dr_sara_bennett
    http://www.thefinancialexpress-bd.com/more.php?news_id=110510&date=2010-08-29 Financial Express: Use of arsenic-contaminated water jeopardising lives of
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 4, 2010
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      Financial Express: Use of arsenic-contaminated water jeopardising lives of millions

      By Mortuza Ali Chowdhury Milan 29 Aug 2010

      The arsenic problem in Bangladesh has not been taken as a serious threat to public health. A decade ago the government, donor organisations, NGO's and research institutions declared that people of Bangladesh were vulnerable to arsenic contamination of water. Numerous projects designed to solve the problem have been taken up by different organisations with large amount of foreign fund flowing in. But the irony is after so many years of such initiatives the organizations - foreign and local - have failed to ensure safe drinking water for the people of Bangladesh.

      Associated Press on June 27th 2010 released a news item saying 1 in every 5 persons living in Bangladesh is at risk of being infected by Arsenic contaminated water. The headline of that news was "Arsenic water killing 1 in 5 exposed in Bangladesh". The World health Organization (WHO) has called it "The largest mass poisoning of a population in history". Even if the infected people stops drinking arsenic polluted water and provided with safe drinking water they still have a high risk of suffering over the next decade.

      The widespread Arsenic contamination level in drinking water throughout Bangladesh was discovered during the 1990's. During the early 90's it was thought that Bangladesh had succeeded in offering safe drinking water to the majority of its population through tube wells, but unfortunately that same decade identified arsenic contamination for the first time in Bangladesh. The contamination of arsenic in groundwater was discovered first at Chapai Nawabganj of Rajshahi Division and its adjoining areas of India, as stated by British Geological Society, BGS. It was detected for the first time in Baroghoria, of Nawabganj District by DPHE (Department of Public Health and Engineering) Bangladesh. In 1994, the people suffering from Arsenicosis were also identified there for the first time after a survey during that period. The state of West Bengal, India was already dealing with arsenic related problems and handled it cautiously. While conducting fieldwork and researches they anticipated the possible presence of arsenic at border adjoining places of Bangladesh. When the School of Environmental studies, Jadavpur University, India first came to know about the arsenic problem in Bangladesh, they immediately published reports and other relevant documents. Dr. Dipankar Chakraborti, Director of the School of Environmental studies, Jadavpur University informed the authorised individuals/officials of WHO and UNICEF offices in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

      Starting from that day till recently, there were around 25 projects engaged in mitigating the problem as reported by a newspaper recently. The allotments of foreign funds for these projects were more than Tk25 billion. World Bank itself donated Taka 1.79 billion to the government for Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation Water Supply Project. The project was carried out by Department of Public Health Engineering under the ministry of Local Government (LGRD). The objective of this project was to test the arsenic level of the tube wells and other drinking water sources, create public awareness about arsenic toxicity and contamination, find out alternative drinking water sources, install deep wells for safe water and create an information database. The strange part of it is that the newspaper reporter found no existence of any organisation to enquire about the Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation Water Supply Project. The Bangladesh Environmental Technology Verification - Support to Arsenic Mitigation Project (BETV-SAM) is a bilateral development assistance project between the governments of Bangladesh and Canada. The goal of BETV-SAM is to address environmental health issues and basic human needs in Bangladesh, by providing drinking water that meets the Bangladesh drinking water standard for arsenic at the point of use for people currently affected by arsenic-contaminated water. This project was assisted by other organizations e.g. Bangladesh Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (BCSIR), Department of Public Health and Engineering (DPHE), Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and Ontario Centre for Environmental Technology Advancement (OCETA).

      CIDA is engaged in water and sanitation programming globally. They have donated $14 million to the Bangladesh Environment Technology Verification Support to Arsenic Mitigation (BETV-SAM) project. The general public has the right to know, how actually the fund was utilized. It is so because the huge amount of fund along with this one, if utilized properly would definitely have improved the arsenic problem of this country. There were six organisations, which were permitted by the BCSIR and OCETA for providing Arsenic treatment plants (ATP) / Arsenic Removal Plant (ARP), but they are 'household based' and much expensive to be born and maintained properly by individuals or group of poor people who are sufferers. The arsenic problem still seems to be not being properly dealt with and solved as it was supposed to be.

      I myself am involved in this Arsenic Mitigation Programme for quite sometime.

      I came to know about Arsenic and its lethal contamination effects back in 1996 at a meeting of Rotary Club of Dhaka Mid City. It was when the arsenic contamination of groundwater was detected for the first time in Bangladesh. As a private researcher, I started gathering information on my own about arsenic and its possible effects. After knowing about the risks, capabilities and the consequence of arsenic contamination I was really concerned and worried. Being a Freedom fighter and a committed social worker I was then determined to find more facts and details about arsenic poisoning and ascertain its preventive measures.

      I went to Jadavpur, India in 2001 for collecting more information and gain further comprehensive facts. There I was introduced to a number of ARP manufacturers who were already operating and in many ways related to the arsenic research/preventive activities in West Bengal as well were operating at border areas of the state for quite a long period of time. I invited them to Bangladesh requesting them to assist us on initiatives undertaken for preventing spread of contamination. Along with them I arranged a meeting with BETV-SAM and OCETA. Most of the meeting sessions were presented by a Bangladeshi woman as a mediator and so called Water Technician.

      The cynical part is, from 2001-2008 all they did was only paper works. In the meantime the proponents were frequently directed to take pointless and unnecessary steps ruining their own funds. In 2008, I personally spent nearly TK 1.0/1.2 million for procuring equipment. Within this puzzling period of nearly a decade most of the proponents left the project in despair as they couldn't bear any further load.

      In October 2009, I attended a seminar at Hindustan Hotel, Kolkata for gaining further experience and knowing methodology on Arsenic Removal Plant in India and their effective performance as well evaluating the effectiveness of our ARP's. Our technology was the only proven, low cost, Community Based ARP. But at the end our technology was denied and rejected showing irrelevant causes, which cannot be accepted according to the outline of our signed contract. In the whole contract there was no mention of Manganese to be treated. Major emphasize was on arsenic, pH level. Suddenly, they created a confusion showing the presence manganese in treated water. Although out of the contract, and the manganese level in groundwater at the testing area itself was more than usual, we later proved that manganese level at our treated water was legally tolerable. Even after all they forcefully rejected our technology without showing any proper cause.

      Currently it is apparent that we are going through an alarming period of arsenic Contamination. The effects are very much widespread now in a number of areas. Currently, in Jessore, a village has nearly been emptied after 6 people of a family died from cancer, caused by arsenic poisoning. Most of the villagers have fled being scared of getting affected. But most disappointingly none of the concerned authorities seems keen to take necessary and effective steps. How many more people shall have to die? Awami League mentioned in its election manifesto that it will tackle the arsenic problem and measures will be taken to provide safe drinking water for all by 2011. The government must take effective measures before the problem turns disastrous for the nation.

      The writer is a freedom fighter, a social worker and a socio-political analyst.
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