Arsenic-tainted water from Unicef wells is poisoning half of Bangladesh

NEXT TIME one of those nice people with a Unicef tin comes rattling up to you during the pre-Christmas collecting season, try out the phrase "Bangladeshi tubewells."

One of the United Nations Children's Fund's proudest achievements has been the mass conversion of Bangladesh to tubewells, pumping up "safe" and "clean" ground water in preference to the dirty, contaminated stuff previously scooped up from the local pond.

But that achievement is turning into a nightmare: hundreds of thousands of the wells are delivering water laced with arsenic. Half the nation may be affected. Untold numbers have been stricken with hideous skin cancers. Many will die.

One expert here fears that Bangladesh's Unicef-induced arsenic crisis may balloon into something on the scale of Africa's Aids calamity.

When the nation of Bangladesh emerged from the flames of war in 1972, safe drinking water was a priority. Village ponds, which traditionally supplied rural needs, were contaminated with sewage; cholera and fatal diarrhoea were rampant.

Unicef, hand-in-hand with Bangladesh's Department of Public Health and Engineering, launched a campaign to sink a massive number of tubewells across the country to pumpwater up from the aquifers. Today, 3 million tubewells provide drinking water for 97 per cent of the population.

But in the past four years it has emerged that in many districts this supposedly cleanwater contains disastrouslyhigh levels of arsenic. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of villagers are coming down with appalling skin problems: warts on palms and soles, melanomas on chests and hands, skin cancer, gangrene.

They are suffering from bronchitis, complaining of burning sensations in their chests. All these are symptoms of arsenic poisoning. Although they may not know it, and their barefoot doctors will not detect it, they will also be suffering from the intestinal cancers that are another symptom of arsenic poisoning, and which will eventually kill them. Many may already have died, undiagnosed.

As recently as last year, in a booklet full of sensual photographs of beautiful, serene young peasant women pumping well water and washing vegetables, Unicef was still blowing its trumpet. "During the 26 years since independence, the coverage record of the Bangladesh rural drinking water programme has been outstanding," it said. "In spite of rapid population growth, 2.5 million public and private handpump tubewells have been installed, bringing safe drinking water to 97 per cent of the population."

Now Unicef is in the midst of a traumatic re-think. Since 1994, when it was grudgingly acknowledged that arsenic in ground water was the cause of Bangladesh's new health crisis, the dimensions of the problem have been growing clearer. The area worst affected is a broad band across the middle of the country where the earth is alluvium deposited by the Ganges.

Scientists now agree the arsenic is geological in origin, but they were stunned when it was first detected because arsenic is usually found in hard rocks and volcanic deposits. "When the tubewells were sunk, we tested for the presence of many things in the water," says Rick Johnston, an environmental consultant at Unicef, "but not arsenic, because we had no reason to suspect we would find it."

Now it appears that arsenic is present in the water supplies of 48,000 of Bangladesh's 68,000 villages in 21 out of the nation's 64 districts. The drinking water of 60 million people - half the population - may be contaminated. Levels of contamination range from 50 parts per billion - five times the maximum level recommended by the World Health Organisation - to 1,000 parts per billion, 100 times the safety limit.

The problem is dauntingly vast. But had Unicef and its partners in the international aid community not been so dazzled by their own success, they might have nipped it in the bud years ago.

The nature of the problem was first spelt out in 1982 by an Indian specialist in dermatology and tropical medicine, Professor K Chandra Saha, who examined patients both in Bangladesh and across the Indian border in the state of West Bengal. "I sometimes examined more than 1,000 patients in a day," he says.

"And there were more and more patients with the same symptoms: melanosis and keratosis that could be mistaken for leprosy, but were not leprosy. I couldn't understand it. Then I discovered that similar symptoms had been detected as arsenicosis, years before, in an area far from Bengal, in Chandigarh, north-west India. But when I told people this, nobody wanted to believe it. They ignored me."

It was not until 1994 that another Indian, Dr Dipankar Chakraborti, director of the School of Environmental Studies in Jadavpur University, Calcutta, wrote the report that made the cause of the problem sure beyond possibility of misunderstanding.

Now things have begun to hot up. Last month a team from the British Geological Survey completed a six-month study for the Government's Department for International Development into how the arsenic entered the water supply; last week the World Bank approved a "fast-track project" to assist Bangladesh in coming to terms with the disaster.

Yet changing the way that rural Bangladeshis get their water will be like trying to turn round an oil tanker. After more than two decades spent dotting the country with tubewells, the local industry that produces, installs and maintains the hand pumps, PVC pipes and the other simple equipment required has built up a considerable head of steam.

Already this year 18,000 new tubewells have been installed. And although Unicef admits that ground water, whether poisoned with arsenic or otherwise, is being depleted so rapidly that within a couple of years half the hand pumps will be defunct in the dry season, they are so wedded to the tubewell "success story" that they cannot contemplate abandoning it.

"They are not complacent, they are perhaps stunned," says Han Heijnen, environmental health adviser at the World Health Organisation in Dhaka. "Maybe 60 million people have been exposed to arsenic in the water.

"This causes two sorts of problems. One is the visible skin problems, which may be halted if arsenic ceases to be ingested, even if they cannot be reversed. The other is where the problem has gone too far, resulting in cancer of the intestine, and which may, in four or five or ten years, become an overwhelming health problem here, like Aids in Africa.

"We have to find a way to change people's access to water quickly. The solution must be easily replicable, and it must be promoted wholeheartedly," Mr Heijnen says.

So while Unicef is exploring (among other things) the idea of sinking much deeper tubewells, at much greater expense and technical difficulty, Mr Heijnen, like Dr Chakraborti over the border in Calcutta, prefers something simpler: teaching villagers to harvest Bangladesh's abundant rainwater - guaranteed arsenic-free - in simple, cheap plastic tanks.

"This is a national emergency, because of the problems we could face down the line," says Mr Heijnen. "It's comparable to the Aids problem in Africa. Potentially it could be a volcano exploding."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
News
i100(More than you think)
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Recruitment Genius: Development Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Development Scientist is required to join a ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner