Twenty years later, millions in Bangladesh are still drinking arsenic-laced water

A new report by Human Rights Watch says the country is doing little to solve a chronic drinking-water crisis that affects over 10 per cent of its population.

-by Ravena Aulakh, originally posted on April 6, 2016


Two decades after Bangladesh discovered its poison wells, 20 million people still drink contaminated water and about 43,000 die every year due to arsenic-related illnesses, says an astonishing new report.

The Bangladesh government is not taking the “basic, obvious steps to get arsenic out of the drinking water” of millions of rural poor, said Richard Pearshouse, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, a global non-profit, and author of this report.

Among other things, the government can help by digging deeper, safer wells in places where they are accessible to more people and regularly monitor them for arsenic, but that isn’t happening, the report says.

“It’s shocking and frustrating to see the government response is almost non-existent in some of the villages hardest hit by arsenic,” Pearshouse said. “Many of these deaths and serious illnesses are preventable if the government would stop wasting wells where they’re not needed, and end the pernicious influence of members of parliament on who gets government wells.”

Throughout Bangladesh, naturally-occurring arsenic is found in water drawn from millions of shallow tube wells.

In 2000, the World Health Organization called it “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history … beyond the accidents at Bhopal, India, in 1984, and Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986.”

The crisis began in the 1970s when local and international development agencies encouraged remote villages in Bangladesh to dig wells rather than rely on dirty rivers and potentially contaminated surface water. The arsenic was discovered only afterwards — the poisonous chemical crept up through the water table to enter millions of the wells.

Years later, over 10 per cent of the country’s population — 20 million people — are still affected by the contaminated water.

Pearshouse interviewed over a hundred people, including those suspected of having arsenic-related health problems, and found that the health system is treating only a small percentage of those suffering arsenic poisoning, and even then provides little or no medical care.

The HRW report quotes a woman living in the southern village of Balia with black spots on her shoulders, arms, palms and the back of her hands as saying: “when it comes to arsenic problems they usually say, ‘We have nothing for your illnesses.’”

Chronic exposure to arsenic can lead to heart disease and cancers of the kidney, liver, bladders and skin.

The report also says that in some cases, local politicians have diverted the construction of safer government wells to their political supporters and allies, leaving poorer people without access to safe water.

In a few instances, water from those supposedly safe government wells was also found to be contaminated with arsenic above the national standard.

Another man, a farmer in his 30s from a remote village, said that many government wells are installed in private homes. “The owners bribe government people or use their political connections. We don’t even know where some of them are, they’re so secretive. It makes me very angry to think about this.”

Bangladesh’s minister of health and family welfare Mohammed Nasim and minister of local government, rural development and co-operatives Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain did not reply to Star’s emails for comments.

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