20 million people drink arsenic-contaminated water in Bangladesh
Human Rights Watch said an estimated 43,000 people die each year from arsenic-related illness in Bangladesh.
Human Rights Watch released a report on Wednesday stating the failure of the Bangladesh government to address issue of arsenic-laced drinking water in rural Bangladesh. According to the 111-page report, “Nepotism and Neglect: The Failing Response to Arsenic in the Drinking Water of Bangladesh’s Rural Poor,” about 20 million people in Bangladesh – mostly rural poor – still drink contaminated water 20 years after the issue was brought to international attention.
The human rights organization said an estimated 43,000 people die each year from arsenic-related illness in Bangladesh. People exposed to the chemical are at significant risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and lung disease as a result. However, many do not receive the healthcare they need, HRW stated.
“Bangladesh isn’t taking basic, obvious steps to get arsenic out of the drinking water of millions of its rural poor,” said Richard Pearshouse, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The government acts as though the problem has been mostly solved, but unless the government and Bangladesh’s international donors do more, millions of Bangladeshis will die from preventable arsenic-related diseases.”
Human Rights Watch it interviewed 134 people for the report, including people suspected of having arsenic-related health conditions; caretakers of government wells in five rural villages, as well as government officials and staff of nongovernmental organizations. It also analyzed data regarding approximately 125,000 government water points installed between 2006 and 2012 (constituting the overwhelming majority of government water points installed during this period).
HRW said arsenic is found in water from hand-pumped, mostly shallow, tube wells across large areas in rural Bangladesh. It also found that government programmes to install new wells don’t make it a priority to install them in areas where the risk of arsenic contamination is relatively high. Moreover, some national and local politicians divert these new wells to their political supporters and allies, instead of the people who most need them.
“If the Member of Parliament gets 50 percent [of the new allocation] and the upazila [sub-district] chairman gets 50 percent, there’s nothing left to be installed in the areas of acute need,” explained one government official who spoke anonymously to Human Rights Watch.
In 1995, an international conference in Kolkata helped draw the world’s attention to the problem of naturally occurring arsenic in the groundwater across huge swaths of rural Bangladesh. From 1999 to 2006, the government, international donors, and nongovernmental organizations oversaw a concerted effort to mitigate arsenic contamination in Bangladesh’s groundwater. The World Bank installed approximately 13,000 rural wells from 2004 to 2010.
Under the national well screening (the bulk of which occurred from 2000 to 2003) some 5 million wells across the country were tested with field kits and the pumps painted red or green according to whether they were above (red) or below (green) the national standard. The screening found that wells of an estimated 20 million people yielded water with arsenic above 50 micrograms per liter (the national standard).
Since 2006, however, the urgency of such efforts has dissipated. A nationwide study of drinking water quality in 2013 found a similar result to the earlier screening, a rate of contamination that corresponds to some 20 million people exposed to arsenic above this level.
“Bangladesh should not allow national and local politicians to divert these life-saving public goods to supporters and allies,” Pearshouse said. “Contaminated government tube wells urgently need to be replaced or rehabilitated, before people lose what little faith they have left in the government’s commitment to provide safe water.”
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