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     Volume 8 Issue 94 | November 13, 2009 |

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A Secret Killer

Ershad Kamol

River-sand-filter can be a better option for safe water in the arsenic affected areas.

While problems of people living in the capital are well focused, people in the rural areas are hardly given any attention. The lack of safe water is one such problem that millions of people living outside the major cities are faces with even though, the country has very easy sources for natural water. Faulty policymaking, lack of awareness, lack of implementation of existing laws, a tendency of blindly following the prescription of donor agencies have led to the misuse and destruction of natural water. According to studies carried out by several government and non-government agencies, over dependence on the underground water level has resulted in the table declining at an alarming rate as well as polluting the underground water sources .

Arsenic contaminated underground water is one such severe problem which the government has failed to manage properly. Five years after the approval of National Policy for Arsenic Mitigation and Implementation Plan, two lakh people still face the threat of cancer annually due to drinking of arsenic contaminated water in Bangladesh, says a report of World Health Organisation (WHO). The national policy has set the target of providing arsenic-free water by 2010 in worst affected communities although millions of people are still drinking arsenic contaminated water, which is causing cancer of skin, lung and bladder as well as low birth weight and many other physical and neurological ailments.

Recent studies show that arsenic contaminated groundwater used for irrigation can contaminate the rice stalks, which is used for feeding animals. Thus arsenic can also enter into the food chain. Moreover, arsenic contaminated water decreases the rate of harvest.

A detailed research on the nature of arsenic contamination and its impact on the public health needs to be done immediately.

Over two lakh people face cancer threat states a WHO report.

Even now, the groundwater of 270 upazilas of the country is severely contaminated by arsenic. According to DPHE 80 to 100 per cent tubewells at 8540 villages are arsenic contaminated. In Bangladesh the acceptable level of arsenic in drinking water has been set by the government at 50 parts per billion (PPB), while the WHO approved standard is 10 PPB. However, in many areas of the country the arsenic level is upto 500 says a DPHE report.

"Although the UN endorsed national arsenic mitigation policy was approved by the government, over 85 million people from different classes across the country are at the risk of arsenic," says Profesor Quazi Quamruzzaman, who has been championing the issue since the identification of an arsenic patient in the country in 1980s, "But so far no holistic measure has been taken in the light of the policy."

National Arsenic and Mitigation and Implementation Plan recommends some specific short term and long term action plans to mitigate the problem. It has recommended focusing on the use of the surface water sources such as river water and rainwater instead of depending on the groundwater. However the concerned agency, DPHE, has done little as far as implementing these plans. Except marking red paint on the arsenic contaminated tubewells, nothing has been initiated so far. Rather, violating the recommendations of the national policy, the government agency has been taking some short-term solutions, which may cause more harm than good.

According to a DPHE high official source, the government agency has come up with new technologies like tara pump and deep tara pump for abstracting water from even deeper aquifers. Moreover, it has proposed to the government to install additional two lakh 75 thousand tubewells to meet the national policy of providing safe water for all by the year 2011.

Geo-hydrologists on the other hand are claiming the programme a complete violation of National Arsenic Mitigation and Implementation Plan. Seasoned geologist of the country M Abdullah, who was one of the active members of formulating the national policy says, "Going to deeper aquifer as the quick solution to the problem can never mitigate it. It will rather lead the crisis to a point where we have nothing to do. It's true that arsenic is frequent in the upper water table. As a quick solution the government agency is initiating plan to use deeper aquifer. Doing it arsenic can easily defuse to the deeper aquifer through leaching. Then the deeper aquifer will also be arsenic-contaminated. Moreover, because of so much dependence on the underground for irrigation, safe water and other reasons the water table is declining at an alarming rate"

"We have more than 80 thousand miles of river across the country. Moreover, the annual rainfall in the country is above 2000 millimetres. If these natural water sources are properly managed we don't need to use underground water sources," he adds.

People living in urban and rural areas can get safe drinking water through rainwater harvesting plant.

Not surprisingly, officials of DPHE are arguing that the agency cannot do the survey annually due to manpower crisis and that private users do not approach them for testing before installing tubewells. "We have to do something to implement the ‘safe water for all’ programme by the year 2011. In the present circumstances we don't see any other options apart from installing tubewells since people don't like to use alternative safe water sources such as upgraded versions of ring well, rain water harvesting and pond sand filter," says a high official of DPHE.

The experts, on the other hand, think that such programmes have been initiated by DPHE to make illegal money by its officials who are going against the interest of the nation. According to health experts many countries in the world have faced similar problems, but they managed to mitigate it by improving water management programmes. They urge the government to take the arsenic issue more seriously considering the possible public health disaster in the Bangladesh it may entail. The National Policy for Arsenic Mitigation and Implementation Plan was approved by the government in 2004. It was after seven years of continuous lobbying, followed by national and international conferences, hundreds of publications in the print media plus extensive television and radio coverage, that government and international agencies started to respond to this massive human health problem. The national policy has set the target of providing arsenic free water by 2010 in the worst affected communities. It would be wise for the government to stick to it as thousands of lives are at risk.


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