Arsenic Poisoning: Are we Losing Ground!



E-Bangladesh is a News/Headlines service and a group blog aimed at bringing the news and analysis from Bangladesh to its readers.

Part -I: Aresenic mitigation or commercial ventures

Photo: Arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh.

Latifa Begum of Alipur, Faridpur is counting her final days lying on the floor of Faridpur Sadar Hospital. She comes from a very poor family. Her husband died years ago, and her eldest son sells newspapers to barely survive in these difficult days.

Sulekha of Vashan Char, Faridpur died of internal cancer because she used to drink arsenic polluted water. Her mother started to narrate what happened but she had to stop, took her sari to wipe out her tears and continued:

When Sulekha came back from the hospital her whole skin became infected and began to rot. She could hardly breathe. She implored me, ‘Mummy, what evil have I done? I have not done anything wrong. And yet I must suffer and die. Mummy, please tell me, how long shall I suffer?’

“O My love has gone to a far country,
If God would only give me wings
I would fly thither.
I would go to that golden land, flying.
We are simple women.”

The story of Sulekha repeats all over the country. In most cases the cause of the suffering and the death is unknown. Even Sulekha did not know. If one drinks arsenic contaminated water death does not come within a short time. Instead people accept suffering and death as fate. You cannot just say to them, “don’t drink this water.” You have to educate them and provide alternatives.

Those who already died are from Aliabad, Kuzurdia and many other areas. And many more are waiting for their miserable days to end without knowing the reasons. The contamination of wells with arsenic is one of the greatest environmental disasters being faced today and must rank as one of the worst in recent times. Few policy makers like politicians and bureaucrats live in the affected villages to experience these sufferings and nobody cares about the people dying.

In the recent decade a number of arsenic NGOs in Bangladesh had engaged in arsenic studies, research and mitigation. With some exceptions most of them have been selling commercial products to cleanse arsenic contamination from edible water resources. They have not been successful in stopping the contamination except extracting some good profit.

Afsan Chowdhury, a senior assistant editor of The Daily Star says:

What became obvious was the extreme contempt in which the official technocrats and bureaucrats held ordinary people. The entire idea of development in Bangladesh is based on the GO-NGO co-operation model and the people have little role to play in this. NGOs are generically fund seekers and now provider of employment.

Most of them have almost no reality beyond this. And this generally grovelling bunch conveniently represents the public face in the eyes of the donors who ultimately decide policies. Not because they want to but because they have to. The ability of the national counterparts is so low that they would not be able to formulate a policy without donor support. They are unable to disagree either because that might mean fund cuts. So it all ends up in the same basket.

Worse still, the token efforts of the World Bank and other aid agencies have added nothing to the solution of the problem. On the other hand, in the regions with high arsenic concentration, exposure to arsenic has ‘alarmingly’ increased the infant death rate, cardiovascular and cancer deaths and skin lesions.

There are many quarters, according to an international study conducted by the World Bank and the Water and Sanitation Programme, who are pursuing their diverse interests, not always humanitarian, centring the arsenic issue.

Politicians in the affected regions are in a dilemma as to how to tackle the arsenic menace, while the donors and the international financing institutions are reluctant to deal with it, the study says.

For arsenic mitigation more than 40 Million US Dollars of fund found their way to Bangladesh from different sources (World Bank, UNICEF, US AID, CIDA (CANADA), JAICA, SIDA, Australian Aid, UNDP etc.). But even with this huge amount of financial resource the organizations concerned totally failed to address the arsenic problem. Dr. Ainul Nishat (IUCN), a renowned water expert, says the achievement of arsenic mitigation by the Government and NGOs is doubtful (The daily Prothom Alo August 12, 2008).

Part -II: Its a catastrophe waiting – upcoming.
Part -III: Simple technological solution is all we need-upcoming.

Dr. Jamal Anwar, son of poet Jasim Uddin, alumni of Dhaka University and University of Kiel. He worked in three continents notably in Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission, Dhaka University, Petrobangla, University of Kiel and is now working in a German Research Institute. He wrote 4 books, one of which on Arsenic Poisoning in Bangladesh.



E-Bangladesh is a News/Headlines service and a group blog aimed at bringing the news and analysis from Bangladesh to its readers.

13 Responses to “Arsenic Poisoning: Are we Losing Ground!”

  1. Author Image

    Prof. Mahmuder Rahman

    Dear Basu,

    I read your e-mail of 11 October 2008 titled “Arsenic poisoning: We are Losing Ground”. It is not that we are losing ground but the ground has been looted by the consultants and so-called experts in collaboration with local bureaucrats and technocrats working with the agencies like UNICE, UNDP, BRAC, ICDDRB and World Bank etc. The Arsenic booty was more than 40 millions US Dollars, some says 1000 million or more.

    Over the past 12-14 years we from DCH staged 6 international conferences and produced pro-people national agendas for arsenic mitigation, research and sustainable safe water policy. All these were done objectively and also keeping in mind our available water resources and our age old practices. It is also on record that DCH pioneered arsenic mitigation and safe water programme and patient management protocol which was ultimately accepted with further modification by the government with the participation of other Bangladeshi experts. The patient management protocol was authenticated by WHO regional center at Delhi. But unfortunately nothing substantial happen to help the suffering millions according to the accepted and approved mitigation policy and action plan.

    So dear Dr. Jamal Anowar it is not a matter of losing ground but unfortunately it is a matter of appropriate and poor and weak administrative management compounded by over wheeling influence of self motivated agendas that have totally eclipsed the ground you are talking about. So if you really want to recover the ground come back join us and participate in national reform programmes. We in Bangladesh still has got lots to offer to its people, we only need to re-organise ourselves and make our priorities right and stand firm with our programme.

    Prof. Mahmuder Rahman

  2. Author Image

    dr. jamal anwar

    I attended one of the international conferences of DCH. I did not get any oppertunity to express my opinion, although Prof. Qamruzamman promised to give an oppertunity. I felt that I am not welcomed. This was a show place for Prof. Dipanker Chakroborti.
    I know that at the beginning of arsenic mitigation I had mistakes. But we learn from mistakes.

    We have a small project and when in a village we discovered arsenic free water at certain depositional sequence, hundreds of tube-wells are dug by the villagers. As my father used say that when nobody comes, do it alone.

    It may be mentioned that this artcle was not published by the Daily Star.

    Dr. Jamal Anwar

  3. Author Image


    Dear Dr Anwar and others,

    It is a great pity that when millions are suffering and facing death, we are engaged in research, policy making and suggestion providing only. More pathetic, it is we who told them to leave the age old sustainable water use methods to new technology exposing them to tghis deadly risk.

    Another aspect of our ignorance is that we only think of self-interest even in arsenic mitigation. There is not a single solution here; ground water is just one.Yes, you may have a safe water layer in certain area, but it may get contaminated gradually aftera few years’ use ! Rainwater is one major safe source; surface water, filtered water etc are to be combined for a sustainable and continuous supply of safe water.
    This should be done, this muxt be done with top priority ! And for every poor of the affected areas!! We don’t need seminars, conferences, data bases and research projects now, till the mitigation is complete. It should be action and action for safe water !!



Comments are closed.