Community movement against arsenic
M A Momin Khondaker

What is needed at first is to screen all tubewells in a community, in terms of the contamination level, to seek the tubewells to be used for providing the community with safe water supply for drinking and cooking purpose.

The arsenic contamination of groundwater has now posed a serious threat to public health in Bangladesh as over 90 per cent of its population is dependent upon ground water for household use including drinking and cooking. An estimated amount of 15-20 per cent of the total population of the country is at a risk of chronic arsenic poisoning. Inhabitants of major cities are dependent upon the urban piped water supply systems based upon groundwater extraction. Arsenic problem in these cities can be tackled even in a better way by replacement of the contaminated wells (if any) with non-contaminated wells or with an alternative option of treated surface water supply. But problems of groundwater contamination from arsenic, in rural areas or in areas where piped water supply systems are absent, are acute. Government agencies have no control over privately installed tubewells extracting groundwater.

The Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation Water Supply Project (BAMWSP) is serving as an umbrella for an ambitious national water testing and health survey. Different organizations and donor agencies are also working on the arsenic issues. At least eight low-cost, domestic water treatment methods are at various stages of development, testing, or distribution. Whatever their suitability to the household needs, recurrent cost for operation and maintenance of these treatment units will be an added burden to the poor (even to the rich) in addition to the investment/installation cost, in rural areas. In rural areas, people are not habituated with buying water they have the feeling that water is a free gift of nature.

In a community of rural areas, it is usually found that all the tubewells are not contaminated equally some have a high level of arsenic content and are not suitable at all for drinking and cooking, while the others do not have so much and can still be used for the same purpose. Contaminated waters for the purpose other than cooking and drinking are not harmful. At household level, the requirement of water for drinking and cooking is relatively very low compared to the total requirement and one tubewell can even serve a large number of households for this purpose. In rural areas, the houses are in cluster form and the tubewells are not as scattered as one will require a large distance to walk to collect water for cooking and drinking purpose. Thus opportunities still exist in the rural (as well as urban) areas, dependent upon individual tubewells, to provide people with safe water, even with some of the existing facilities/tubewells. But what is needed at first is to screen all tubewells in a community, in terms of the contamination level, to seek the tubewells to be used for providing the community with safe water supply for drinking and cooking purpose.

Centre for Integrated Resource Management (CIRM), a private organization, since April 2001, has started working on how to cope with arsenic problems using the local resources and existing tubewells, in an arsenic affected village, Vijoykora of Choddagram, Comilla. The work is intended to develop an ideal model of project design, planning and implementation involving the community people, to deal with arsenic problem in rural areas. The layout of the model is as simple and conducive to the people need as follows:

The project is action-oriented research-based one and is being implemented with adaptation of an ideal project cycle, community initiatives to project completion. Problems and solutions are being documented at each stage of the project and lessons are being taken as input to the formulation of better community managed arsenic project. The major objectives of the project are: (1) generation of initiatives within the community for arsenic-free safe water, (2) conducting the baseline survey of the village by the people (mainly students), (3) screening of the tubewells, in terms of arsenic contamination levels, (4) finding the solutions to the problems. By now, the project has generated the community interests and initiatives for arsenic-free safe water, completed baseline survey with some SSC and HSC students of the village. Screening of the tubewells is going on, with the testing cost borne by the tubewell owners. Some tubewells are found to have high level of arsenic content while others to have water with permissible limit of arsenic. These tubewells are located within very short distances in a para (a cluster form of a community). Thus it is envisaged that the community people can share these tubewells for drinking and cooking purpose. In case suitable tubewells are not found, ranges of suitable alternative options are available at the users' choice deep tubewells, treated surface water, rainwater harvesting, etc. Social issues relating to the best and optimal use of good tubewells are being discussed with community people in order to achieve community-managed services.


The project will have several outputs from each stage. For sustainability, community participation is the focal point and heart of the project that is being ensured with the active involvement of the community people at all stages CIRM here is a facilitator only. In addition, awareness programme is being campaigned with the use of local resources students, community leaders/people. Under this campaign, different issues are being discussed what is arsenic and how it damages health; if water contains arsenic at a danger level how people can get suitable water from alternative sources; what local vegetables are available and abundant intake of which increases the body resistance against arsenic poisoning; where arsenic patients will get health services for treatment, and similar others.

It is important to mention that the above approach may not be equally applicable in all areas irrespective of the arsenic content of groundwater and social behaviour, especially where all installed tubewells are arsenic contaminated at danger levels. Therefore the organization, with the involvement of donors in this sector (upon seeking), has planned to implement similar pilot testing projects in different areas to design the realistic projects for their replication in similar areas.

It is important to note that the community people of the village are doing the major works and CIRM is playing its role as consultant/facilitator. Involvement of all with the project is of voluntary in nature.

Engr M A Momin Khondaker (M.Sc., Env Engg.) is Director of CIRM.

Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, July 12, 2001
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