A farmer bathing in deep tubewell water in Brahmanpara, Cumilla
A farmer bathing in deep tubewell water in Brahmanpara, CumillaEmdadul Haque

People consider the water from the tubewell near their home to be safe for drinking. There is no way to ascertain the arsenic content of the water without testing it. Arsenic is odourless. And the effects of arsenic on the human body appear only after a few years. The skin becomes dry and breaks out in rashes and then sores appear. This can ultimately lead to cancer.

The health directorate has no updated records on the persons affected by arsenic in the country. However, according to a 2019 survey of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistic (BBS) and UNICEF, 11.8 per cent of the people in Bangladesh drink arsenic-contaminated water. That means, 19,835,000 (1 crore 98 lakh 35 thousand) in the country drink this contaminated water.

According to the United National Population Fund (UNFPA)'s annual global population report 2019, the present population of Bangladesh is 168.1 million (16 crore 81 lakh).

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A Human Rights Watch report of 2016, quoting World Health Organisation (WHO), said that Bangladesh's arsenic contamination of water was the world's worst mass poisoning. It said that every year in Bangladesh, 43,000 people died because of arsenic poisoning. The health directorate protested against this report at the time, but could not come up with any figures itself.

Excess arsenic content was found in the water of 29 per cent of the tubewells. No survey was carried out in the 17 years since then and so it could not be determined how many tubewells at present had water with arsenic content above tolerable level
Humayun Kabir, DPHE executive engineer

The Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE) is in charge of supply water all over the country except for the Dhaka, Chattogram, Rajshahi, and Khulna WASA zones. The last time tubewells were tested for arsenic in the country was in 2003.

Executive engineer of the DPHE arsenic management department, Humayun Kabir, told Prothom Alo that in 2003, excess arsenic content was found in the water of 29 per cent of the tubewells. No survey was carried out in the 17 years since then and so it could not be determined how many tubewells at present had water with arsenic content above tolerable level. However, anyone can have their tubewell water tested free of charge to determine the arsenic content. They would just have to contact the upazila DPHE office.

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Arsenic is a chemical substance and there are always traces of arsenic in water. However, when the arsenic content goes above tolerable level, it leads to various ailments in the body. The present of excess arsenic in tubewell water was first detected in the country in the early nineties.

There was no updated record of the number of arsenic patients in the country at present. Neither was there any data on how many persons died or arsenicosis in the country every year

The disease caused by arsenic in the body is referred to as arsenicosis. The government carried out a survey in 2012 to identify arsenicosis patients in the country and 65,910 patients were identified. Then in 2017, the health directorate collected data from hospitals in 42 districts of the country, which revealed 18,663 arsenicosis patients undergoing treatment.

In 2012, a total of 167 arsenicosis cases were detected in Kaliganj upazila of Jhenaidah. Almost all the tubewells of Talian and Notopara villages of Jamal union in the upazila had excess arsenic in the water. In these two villages, 30 persons had arsenicosis. One of them died. The government installed 20 arsenic-free deep tubewells in the two villages but this was inadequate compared to the need.

Chairman of Jamal union Modasser Hossain told Prothom Alo, the tubewells of Talian and Notopara villages have high arsenic content. It is not possible to install tubewells at every home. A number of arsenic-free tubewells has been installed in the two villages. More deep tubewells were necessary to meet the drinking water requirements.

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Treatment for arsenic patients is placed under the health directorate's non-communicable disease programme. The deputy programme manager in charge of the matter, Shahnewaz Parvez, told Prothom Alo that there was no updated record of the number of arsenic patients in the country at present. Neither was there any data on how many persons died or arsenicosis in the country every year.

He said, there are a number of steps to identify an arsenicosis patient. But as there are no programmes in this regard, even if there are any patients, they are not being identified.

At present, awareness concerning arsenic contamination is raised among the physicians, nurses and health workers who are working under the health directorate's non-communicable diseases programme. But the directorate at the moment has no programme to identify arsenic patients or to mobilise public awareness in this regard.

DPHE in 2019 took up a project to reduce the risk of arsenic in the water supply. The project term is up till December 2021. This project will deal with installing deep tubewells, rainwater treatment, pond water treatment, and setting up a plant to remove arsenic from water. Project costs have been estimated at Tk 18.65 billion (Tk 1,865 crore ).

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Under this project, tubewell water will be tested for arsenic presence in 54 districts. Tubewells with arsenic-contaminated water will be painted red and arsenic-free tubewells will be painted green. The contaminated water tubewells will be replaced under this project.

Arsenic is a silent killer. The country is not rid of the arsenic problem and it is as serious as before. But the issue is not discussed as much as before
Ainun Nishat, emeritus professor, BRAC University

Project director Bidhan Chandra Dey said the tubewell water will be tested for arsenic content in November this year. Once the survey is over, the number of tubewells with high content of arsenic can be accurately determined.

He said, other than in 10 districts including the Chittagong Hill Tracts, there is arsenic presence in the water of the remaining 54 districts of the country. According to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), there must be one source of safe drinking water for every 50 persons. This project for the supply of arsenic-free water was been taken up to attain this goal.

Difference with global standards

There is a difference between international standards and national ones over how much arsenic content in one litre of water is considered safe. In the sixties, WHO maintained that .05 milligrams of arsenic per litre of water was safe. In 1993 it was reduced to .01 milligrams.

While the rest of the countries in the world reduced this accordingly, Bangladesh still maintains the 1963 standard. According to the standard set by the Bangladesh government, water cannot be used for drinking or cooking if its arsenic content is higher than .05 milligrams per litre.

However, the global standard for arsenic content in water is considered universal and credible. Experts feel Bangladesh must follow this global yardstick if it is to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. If the global standards are taken into cognizance, then 18.6 per cent of the country's population is drinking arsenic contaminated water. That accounts for 31,267,000 (3 crore 12 lakh 67 thousand) people.

No more free medication

There is no specific medication for arsenicosis. The main alternative solution is to use arsenic-free water. However, certain vitamins and medicines can help in treating the roughness of the skin and the sores. Till 2015, arsenicosis patients were provided with antioxidants, Vitamin D complex and iron tablets for free. These medicines are no longer provided.

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The danger persists

According to a joint study conducted last year by the NGO Forum for Public Health and the Stockholm University in Sweden, even if arsenic-free water is found in deep tubewells, this is not free of micro-organisms like bacteria. So tubewell water is not necessarily safe. Around 20 to 40 persons use one tubewell. It costs Tk 60,000 to install a deep tubewell.

Head of the NGO Forum for Public Health's research department, Ahsan Habib, told Prothom Alo that bacteria remains in the water of deep tubewells and that is a new challenge. And the random installation of deep tubewells had taken the arsenic level lower too. Even though now technology is used for the supply of arsenic-free water, this does not always reach the public. The people in power are the ones benefitting from such facilities.

Till 2013 there had been specific projects for arsenic and tubewells would be tested and marked in villages. The people would be told which one could not be used for drinking or cooking.

Public health experts feel that with such programmes halted for the past 17 years, the risks of arsenic contamination have increased. They have been recommending rainwater harvesting and pond water treatment. The experts are also advising the government to increase the use of surface water.

BRAC University's emeritus professor Ainun Nishat has long carried out research on arsenic-related policies. Speaking to Prothom Alo, he said arsenic is a silent killer. The country is not rid of the arsenic problem and it is as serious as before. But the issue is not discussed as much as before.

He said programmes of the health department and DPHE were extremely inadequate regarding the arsenic issue, the number of arsenicosis patients and their treatment. He said that unless the government pays special attention to the issue, the arsenic situation would not come under control.

* This report appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir