Drinking Water And Peoples' Health

Although the programme to sink tubewells to tap the underground water in Bangladesh was well-intentioned—to provide pure drinking water to the people, it has brought with it the worst case of arsenic poisoning in the world. There are currently over four million tubewells and as surveys show almost 35% of the wells are contaminated. This is no small number as they affect more than 22 million people.

Many people are coming forward with their own pet solution to the problem and this is good, up to a point as doing nothing while searching for the perfect solution would be criminal. Still we must be absolutely certain they will work. The main worry is that most of these filtration techniques leave behind a sludge that may cause problems of its own.

But the main point is that the peoples' health must be protected as so much hangs on keeping it for unless people are healthy they cannot contribute their optimum to the nation's development. Some people take this a little further to say we must make health the centre of our economic development. Considering that it is more than time we did something more effective to save the people from the effect of arsenic-poisoning. Now that the health sector is not the exclusive domain of health professionals, this is one health issue that should have been placed at the top of our agenda long ago because many people in the villages are still not aware they are suffering from arsenic toxicity.

We are told that in some districts, arsenic-contamination in the ground water is increasing and many tubewells that were once coloured green (meaning safe to drink) are now coloured red, meaning unsafe to drink. One study showed how some people had died prematurely and many more were suffering from arsenical skin lesions, yet we seem immune to their suffering. Is it that we do not care?

When eminent personalities like Dr. Smith, a consultant to WHO has said it is the worst man-made chemical calamity in human history and far exceeds any previous disasters such as the 1984 incident at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, why do we hold back from aiding these people?

With the lives of millions of people at stake, we cannot kick this issue under the carpet. Many studies show a strong cause and effect relationship between drinking arsenic-contaminated water and incidences of lung, liver and bladder cancers. Discontinuing the drinking of arsenic-contaminated water and finding alternative sources according to Dr. Smith is the key to addressing this problem.

For a country like Bangladesh with chronic fund shortages, simplicity of operation and maintenance of treatment technologies is the key to successful water treatment systems. To this we may add that such systems must be culturally acceptable and simple enough for even the most illiterate person to operate.

That there is no single remedy is clear and much will depend on the situation in each village.

 Source: The Bangladesh Observer, 23 October, 2001