The discovery of arsenic

Starting in the early 1970s, more than 97% of the population has shifted from unhygienic and irregular surface water sources to the use of groundwater for their domestic needs. The recently discovered naturally-occurring arsenic in shallow groundwater invalidates much of this success. Roughly two-thirds of the shallow tube-wells turn out to extract water with concentrations of arsenic above the permissible levels set by the World Health Organisation.

In 2000, it was estimated that up to 77 million people in Bangladesh were exposed to dangerous levels of arsenic above the  World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline. Arsenic is chronically toxic after prolonged low-level exposure and can lead to various cancers and neurological disorders. Given their poor nutrition and generally low health status, the poisoning has more severe consequences for the poor.

Reality check!

Unfortunately, development agencies have had little success resolving the arsenic problem. First, most of the delivered water supplies did not benefit the poor. One villager mentions: “In theory, we decided upon the placement of the water supply. In practice, it was the local government chairman who installed it at the house of a friend”. Second, many of the installed water supplies were not maintained and eventually abandoned.

We have witnessed these failures of implementation ourselves in a number of districts (Kushtia, Shatkhira, Gopalganj, Jessore and Munshiganj), with a range of technological options and by various types of organisation (private, public, non-governmental, local, national and international). A few cases are provided in the picture below (please click to enlarge) and we have posted further evidence for this here.

Posters of failed technologies

The main cause for these failures is not corruption or lack of community interest. Agencies often rush to install as many water supplies as possible at the expense of the slower social processes of building collective ownership and control over the water supplies.

A further complication is that switching to arsenic-free water is often not sufficient to detoxify the blood and organs affected by years of gradual poisoning. Access to safe drinking water must go hand in hand with long-term medical support for existing patients. This raises serious doubts about the sustainability of many of today’s efforts that focus on water or health alone.

A crisis of governance

While research has clarified many of the geological, chemical, medical, social and technical facets of this complex issue, there is an urgent need for action. The central government struggles with an inadequate financial/institutional capacity, NGOs are struggling with a lack of expertise and the private sector is not much involved. Over the past few years, the rural poor have started realising the gravity of the situation, but it is difficult for them to react adequately due to the many uncertainties, misconceptions, financial barriers and limited power.

This situation has prompted us to initiate a program bringing together researchers, medical doctors, development practitioners and local communities with the aim to learn about the problem, develop potential approaches and overcome the obstacles.