Appeal: Finding alternatives to wells of despair

Click to follow
The Independent Online

When Abul Kalam's wife, Hasina Begum, died three years ago, he had no idea what was wrong with her. "She was sick for about a year, but we didn't know what it was," he says. "She had black spots all over her body and hard calluses on the palms of her hands. She couldn't digest food. She could eat, but she couldn't digest it."

When Abul Kalam's wife, Hasina Begum, died three years ago, he had no idea what was wrong with her. "She was sick for about a year, but we didn't know what it was," he says. "She had black spots all over her body and hard calluses on the palms of her hands. She couldn't digest food. She could eat, but she couldn't digest it."

It was not until doctors carried out a post-mortem examination on his wife's body that Mr Kalam found out what was wrong with her. And it was a terrible truth: she had been slowly poisoned to death by the tube well he had dug in his village near Chittagong to provide his family with clean water. The tube well was contaminated with arsenic. And then Mr Kalam began to show the same symptoms. He was being poisoned by the water.

This is one of the most difficult problems WaterAid is trying to solve in Bangladesh. For years, NGOs have been urging the country's rural poor to dig tube wells and not drink the filthy water from ponds and shallow wells they were drinking before. But recently it has emerged that in huge areas of Bangladesh, the ground water is contaminated with arsenic.

The condition that results from drinking the water, arsenicosis, is cruel. Those suffering are badly disfigured with black spots. They become weak and exhausted and, eventually, the condition is fatal. Victims are often shunned because of a mistaken belief that the condition is contagious - in fact, it is purely the symptoms of poisoning and cannot be spread from one person to another.

The NGOs were suddenly faced with years of work trying to get rural Bangladeshis to drink clean water ending in disaster. Now WaterAid is working with local partners to test existing tube wells to see if they are contaminated or not and, where they are affected, to provide alternate sources.

Nobody knows for sure how the arsenic got into the water. One theory is that Bangladesh has critically overdrawn its ground water reserves, with the result that arsenic from rocks has been released. Recent research by local doctors has found the condition is reversible.

Because of their work, Mr Kalam is now almost fully recovered. The first part of the cure is to stop drinking the contaminated water. Patients are put on diets very heavy in green vegetables, and gradually the condition is reversed.

"I am a shopkeeper, and when it was bad, I was too weak to work," says Mr Kalam. "But now it's better. All the spots have gone. Local people have helped me by providing me with clean water from their tube wells."

He is lucky. One of the biggest obstacles WaterAid has encountered is local ignorance about the condition. Many sufferers are shunned to the extent that young women who have had it can never get married, even after they have recovered.

WaterAid is involved in projects to educate people about arsenicosis. They are trying to reach out to children and teach them about the condition early.

One scheme involves picture cards which accompany a story about Aishe, a girl who learns about arsenicosis. Not only does she teach the other children at school not to shun sufferers, she persuades her father to have their well tested.

WaterAid and its partners are backing a major project to have all tube wells in affected areas tested, but many villagers are reluctant because they have already made a considerable outlay and do not want to lose their investment.

The hand pumps with which the villagers draw water from the tube wells can be seen all over Bangladesh. But now those that have been tested are being marked with paint - red for those that are contaminated, green for those that are safe.

WaterAid and its partners are helping villagers to acquire alternative sources of clean water. There are several options: a filtration system is available that cleans the arsenic out of the water, but it is costly for villagers. Other possibilities are deep wells - the arsenic is not found below a certain depth, concrete-lined wells which the arsenic cannot get into, and rainwater collection tanks.

But all are expensive options for villagers who may have spent what little they had for clean water on a tube well that has turned out to be contaminated. WaterAid's partners generally get the villagers to pay them back in small instalments over a long period, because of WaterAid's philosophy that the aid should be sustainable and therefore not hand-outs. But for very poor cases, sometimes sources of clean water are given for free.

The villagers who find themselves with the dreaded red paint on their hand pumps have suffered a cruel fate. They tried to drag themselves out of the privations of poverty and provide clean water for their families, only to discover the water was contaminated. WaterAid is giving them a second chance.

SUPPORT FOR THE APPEAL

One reader has decided to run the London marathon next year to raise money for WaterAid, after being inspired by the uplifting stories about our Christmas charities this year. Others have written to thank us for choosing such a positive theme for our Green Shoots Appeal, which is raising money for modest projects in Africa and Asia that are transforming the lives of entire communities. So far our Green Shoots appeal has raised £47,253 for the three charities in our campaign - WaterAid, Send A Cow and the Namibia-based wildlife charity IRDNC. The Independent's auction has meanwhile raised £32,294, making a grand total of £79,547 for our charities so far. Giving the Green Shoots Christmas Appeal £75 will buy a share of a cow, while £25 can be used to buy well-digging tools. Let's try to reach £100,000 by Christmas.

Comments