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Arsenic in Bangladesh Water, Then and Now

A typical well in rural Bangladesh. The red paint on the spout indicates that the water is contaminated with arsenic.
A typical well in rural Bangladesh. The red paint on the spout indicates that the water is contaminated with arsenic.

Back in the summer of 1997 while working for a small newspaper focusing on UN development issues, I traveled to Bangladesh to see how far this often overlooked country tucked away in a corner between India and China had fared since its independence 25 years ago. At the time the only stories which came out of this part of Southeast Asia and made international headlines were of devastating cyclones and floods or rebel clashes. When I arrived there, I saw a different story.

Bangladesh was being transformed because of its people, leadership and international cooperation.  There was a sense that things were about to change for this country which for years flirted with the lowest rungs of the development ladder. Long colorful throngs of sari-clad women walked in the early morning to textile factories in Dhaka. Success stories of the Grameen Bank led by Muhammad Yunus (who will be speaking with Jeff Sachs) and the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee became legendary and demonstrated to the world the power of microfinance. Clearly the country was changing for the better.

However there was something sinister seeping deep underground between the rocks. It was arsenic and it was poisoning the water coming from the wells. Back in the 70s in response to the growing disease burden caused by chronic floods and runoff water, a number of international agencies and private citizens began installing millions of inexpensive tubewells to tap the cleaner water beneath the surface. It was a mammoth public health success. Today, unfortunately, tens of millions of Bangladeshis are paying the price for good intentions.

Sores on the hand are signs of arsenicosis.
Sores on the hand are signs of arsenicosis.

Arsenicosis is a peculiar disease. It is a slow death because it can take years to settle in. And because of its creeping nature, people don’t pay too much attention to it — until it’s too late. When I visited Bangladesh, the telltale signs of discoloration and sores on hands and feet where everywhere in rural villages. They knew it came from the water, but it was a better alternative to drinking the polluted brown water on the ground.

Here today in 2009, it’s encouraging to see the international response and research being led by the Earth Institute, Columbia University to solving the arsenic problem in Bangladesh and in other parts of the world. Arsenic has been found even in water right in our backyard in Rockland county. A recent paper produced by Columbia scientists is getting closer to solving the mystery of where the arsenic is coming from and paving the way to stopping it.

For more information please read here.

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Dr J G Ray
15 years ago

The problem of arsenic poisoning could be avoided if the nation had definite norms on ground water exploitations and consumptions. Moreover, since Bangladesh is a country with sufficient precipitations, national planning for rural rainwater harvesting instead of ground water exploration schemes, should avoid such problems.

Even, at present, national or international agencies if can promote rainwater harvesting schemes and pollution abatement programmes for the surface waters, the arsenic problems can be effectively controlled. Since rural rainwater harvesting does not require huge economic investment, the problem can be solved easily. People need to be trained to do that. However, the question is whether the national leaders of that country and the affluent global communities world over, have the political will to consider the poor people there as their own bretherns.

Bill McIntosh
Bill McIntosh
14 years ago

An uninformed statement and view.
Bangladesh can be a very dry place for months on end, and there is only one Monsoon – which sometimes fails.
Attempts at stagnant stored and untreated rainwater will set the population back 50 years.
The arsenic “rich” groundwater where it cannot be avoided for drinking purposes can be treated by simple means to remove most arsenic. Simple testing and colour-coding can segregate high from low levels of contamination.
And this is being done.

Shyamal Chowdhury
9 years ago

Scarcity of safe drinking water is now a common fundamental problem of the poor people of developing countries. Bangladesh is riverine country and in respect of areas of land it has one of the largest fresh-water resources of the world. But access to safe water has been very difficult due to arsenic contamination in groundwater and pollution in surface water. Thousands of people, especially children, die of water borne diseases every year. Tube-well water was considered to be safe, because it is pathogen free water. So extraction of groundwater through tube-wells started during the British colonial era. But few years ago it has been known that shallow aquifers layers of Bangladesh and some other countries are contaminated with arsenic poison
A work aims at inventing an absorptive medium for arsenic and toxic minerals of tube-wells water by setting up this medium in modern scientific water purification filtering systems and traditional filtering systems. It has been demonstrated that this complex compound acts as an efficient absorptive medium for arsenic and other toxic minerals, but it let to flow the essential minerals within permissible limits. Many Arsenic filtering systems had been exhausted after some days and lost the ability to mitigate Arsenic more. So, a simple regeneration process for this exhausted absorptive medium has been developed. After regeneration the absorptive medium can be used as a new one. To save the environment a cheap arsenic waste management process has also been developed.
During flood almost all the tube-wells of affected rural villages go under water. In hilly regions the tribal people use spring water for drinking and cooking purposes. This type of water may also be contaminated. Many people in Arsenic contaminated areas use ponds water as alternative option. This filter composite can also be used as surface water treatment plant by using calculated quantity of Sodium or Calcium Hypochlorite and floculator, which remove bacteria and turbidity of surface water respectively.