Water and Access: Arsenic in Bangladesh

This piece by Christine Lapisto at Treehugger on arsenic in wellwater in Bangladesh highlights a number of different social issues including access to potable water, flaws with development work performed by humanitarian organisations, and environmental illnesses. It’s also another example of selective media reporting. Although arsenic has been identified in water supplies in Bangladesh since the 1990s, it hasn’t gotten a great deal of press outside of environmental and aid organisations. The mainstream media is remaining rather quiet on this one.

The arsenic problem in Bangladesh began in the 1970s, when aid organisations identified the need for sources of clean water. People drinking surface water were exposed to bacteria and parasites, which can be especially dangerous for young children. Access to potable water worldwide is a very serious issue. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 2.6 billion people lack access to water from ‘improved’ sources. This is a problem.

The solution in the 1970s was to dig wells to provide access to groundwater. If wells are drilled properly, they can hit protected aquifers that should be clean. However, when these tube wells were dug in Bangladesh, evidently tests were not performed to check for common natural toxins like arsenic. Arsenic is found in groundwater all over the world, including aquifers, because it’s naturally present in the soil. Argentina, Mexico, and some regions of the United States all have arsenic deposits that work their way into groundwater.

I would like to point out that testing for arsenic and other contaminants is routine when digging wells here in the United States. People are required to conduct extensive testing before applying for a permit to dig a well, and once dug, the well will be tested again. Likewise, other water supplies are routinely tested and monitored by government agencies charged with keeping the drinking water safe. The same level of monitoring is not provided in Bangladesh, and it led to truly horrific consequences.

Arsenic is hepatotoxic, linked with cancers, and dangerous for the skin, kidneys, and cardiovascular system. Prolonged exposure can lead to serious health problems. Including death. Not expecting arsenic poisoning, many doctors diagnosed their patients with other conditions. In addition to delaying appropriate treatments, this also meant that reporting on arsenic poisoning cases didn’t happen.

For patients, some treatments are simply not even offered. Others may be available, but unaffordable or logistically impossible. Cancer treatment?  Available if you can afford it, reach a clinic that provides it, take time off from work or caring for your family to receive treatment, have support at home when you are wiped out from cancer treatments. Saying that people are being poisoned by their drinking water and telling them to stop taking water from the community well is not a solution. People need water. That water has to come from somewhere. If the only source of water in your community is a contaminated well, you will continue drinking from it. What else are you supposed to do?

By the 1990s, it was clear that a serious health crisis was developing. 77 million people in Bangladesh were exposed to arsenic, some of them at extremely high levels. A decade-long study on the population exposed shows that fully one fifth of the deaths that occurred can be attributed to arsenic. Not for nothing is WHO referring to this as the largest mass-poisoning in history.

Naturally, the development organisations that installed the wells are disavowing all responsibility. Interestingly, documentation seems to suggest that local residents indicated that the wells were unsafe. This is a pretty classic example of development agencies entering a nation, identifying a problem, coming up with a solution, and not consulting the communities it will impact. Had they done so, they might have learned that the tube wells they were digging should be tested for heavy metals to find out if they were safe.

The concerns don’t stop with the water that people drink. This same arsenic-laced water is used for irrigation. Given that plants are so adroit at uptaking toxins that some of them are used in environmental cleanup, it is possible that arsenic is filtering into the food supply. That same food supply that began expanding and stabilising once the clean water program provided more reliable access to water for irrigation.

Now that the contaminated water is here, the focus in dealing with the problem has been on developing methods of environmental remediation to clean the water and make it safe to drink. Research is being conducted to develop low-cost systems of water purification that people will realistically be able to obtain, use, and maintain safely. Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley Labs have developed and proposed several water treatment systems.

Meanwhile, people are also studying the environmental costs associated with release of arsenic into the natural environment, and the spread of arsenic through various waterways. Aid organisations opened a can of worms when they dug these wells, and we can’t cram the worms back in, so now we’ve got to figure out a way to deal with them.

While it is clearly aid organisations that bear the responsibility for fixing the problem they created, the situations in Bangladesh is illustrative of the need to work with, not dictate to, communities. To consult community leaders and other members of the community before taking action. If the focus on addressing the arsenic problem stays in places like the United States and does not include input from people living and working in Bangladesh, I suspect that it may be bound for failure, and it may create new problems of its own, just as the wells did.

This persistence in ‘helping by doing it for you’ can be seen all over the world among aid agencies. Creating environmental problems while trying to help communities could, perhaps, be avoided by actually incorporating the community being ‘helped’ into discussions about appropriate actions to take. And let us not forget the evils perpetrated in the name of ‘conservation,’ where there’s not even a pretense of helping communities and in fact, communities are actively harmed. Displacing communities, creating refugees, and dictating environmental policy as though it is one size fits all is, as unusualmusic points out, a form of colonialism.

Nations outside the United States are not our playground or our opportunity for do-gooding.