David Bull

The executive director of Unicef UK responds to a report by Peter Popham on the danger posed by poisoned drinking water to millions of Bangladeshis
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The Independent Online

Yesterday's front page report by Peter Popham told a story that began 25 years ago, when horrifically high numbers of babies and children in Bangladesh were dying of easily preventable water-borne diseases. The government of Bangladesh, with assistance from Unicef and other agencies, began promoting the use of tube wells because of the disastrous quality of drinking water drawn from surface sources contaminated with faecal bacteria. The use of tube wells, in tandem with other improvements in sanitation, led to a dramatic drop in infant mortality a decade later.

Yesterday's front page report by Peter Popham told a story that began 25 years ago, when horrifically high numbers of babies and children in Bangladesh were dying of easily preventable water-borne diseases. The government of Bangladesh, with assistance from Unicef and other agencies, began promoting the use of tube wells because of the disastrous quality of drinking water drawn from surface sources contaminated with faecal bacteria. The use of tube wells, in tandem with other improvements in sanitation, led to a dramatic drop in infant mortality a decade later.

With some 4 to 5 million tube wells installed across Bangladesh, providing drinking water for almost the whole population, a different tragedy was revealed following testing in 1996/7. The British Geological Survey estimates that about 24 million people (20 per cent of the population) are at risk of drinking tube-well water contaminated by arsenic.

So what went wrong? In reality, this was something no one could have predicted at the time. In the 1970s, when large-scale sinking of tube wells began, water was routinely tested for bacteria, iron and chloride, but not for arsenic. Nobody in the scientific or development community thought this was necessary, nor was there any evidence that arsenic could be present in such dangerous concentrations.

Now that the extent of this disaster is clear, providing safe water is Unicef's priority. Unicef is helping to test tube wells, supporting the installation of alternative water systems, training field health workers, and working on a nationwide awareness campaign to reach 80 million people. But more must be done, and we, along with Peter Popham, urge all parties to rise to the challenge.

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