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HATKOPA Village, Bangladesh -- By the time a government team painted the nozzle of his well red, as a warning not to drink the water, Abdul Jabbar already was suffering excruciating pain from stomach cancer caused by arsenic poisoning.

Jabbar will die as sure as the annual monsoon rains flood the wetlands every year.

Millions more will share his fate over the next decade unless rural Bangladeshis and neighboring Indians are saved from well water contaminated by a poison that causes a slow and painful death.

"When the other wells don't work, we still drink from this one with the red mark," admitted Jabbar's wife, Sofura, 38. "What else can we do? We must drink."

A Belgian study has found the arsenic contained in well water and used for irrigation has crept into leaves, stems, roots and cattle fodder, and may have poisoned the entire food chain in this river-braided delta, the world's most densely populated region, home to 126 million people. Testing for signs of contamination begins this month in 300 villages.

"If it is the disaster some people fear it may be, we have a huge problem and must act quickly," said Babar Kabir, a World Bank hydrologist.

A survey financed by the World Bank covered about 10 percent of the 4 million Bangladeshi wells. It found 40 percent of the surveyed wells were contaminated with arsenic. After years of dallying, skepticism and bureaucratic inertia, the race is on now to save between 18 million and 24 million people who Kabir said face death by arsenic poisoning. Another 6 million potential victims are estimated to be in India's West Bengal state.

Progress has been slow. The arsenic alarm was first sounded in 1988 by a Calcutta gadfly named Dipankar Chakraborti, a chemical analyst who was dismissed as a "panic merchant" on both sides of the border.

In March, 11 years later, a World Bank-funded survey will start to test all of the 4 million Bangladeshi wells.

"When we brought up the problem three years ago we were told, `Don't create a panic. Keep quiet,' " said Dr. Mahmuder Rahman, a physician and head of Dhaka's National Medical College. "Even the World Health Organization had a negative attitude and their consultant rejected our report."

By 1997, local bureaucrats, politicians and international skeptics finally accepted the magnitude of the problem. By then it was too late for many rural inhabitants.

"Now we have 9-year-olds with the disease, and we need quick action," Rahman said. "Arsenic is cancer-producing. It's slow. You may get cancer only after 20 years. According to a (University of California at) Berkeley study, we now have 30,000 to 40,000 cancer cases a year as the result of arsenic poisoning.

"But many more are never reported because doctors here don't know how to diagnose it. They just call it a skin disease. The only remedy to reverse the disease is to drink safe water."

The only antidote for the first two stages of arsenic poisoning is arsenic-free water. For the third stage there is no cure.

Water in this delta is both a blessing and a curse.

Surface water contaminated by fertilizers and a population that doubled since Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan in 1973 has caused diarrhea and cholera epidemics that killed millions in the past.

The current tragedy has its roots in a Good Samaritan act by the international community. Beginning in the late 1970s, United Nations agencies such as UNICEF began to wean rural people away from polluted ponds and canals by providing them with 1 million wells that draw water from what hydrologists then considered pure aquifer water deposits 65 feet or more below the surface.

UNICEF officials admit no one tested the new wells; the campaign was hailed as a resounding success. In fact, 97 percent of the rural population now drink from deep-bore aquifer wells. Villagers dug 3 million more wells at their own expense, and they used the additional water for irrigation, which has now raised fears of food-chain poisoning.

The wells had been drilled into a subterranean layer of arsenic that had washed down from the Himalayas by the Ganges and Bramaputra Rivers over eons and seeped to the bottom of the silt that makes this region so fertile.

As irrigation and more thirsty throats lowered the water table, people inadvertently pumped the arsenic to the surface.

According to studies submitted to the World Bank, as many as 200,000 people a year now die of arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh.

Many more may have succumbed to cancer caused by a poison that frequently affects internal organs, such as the liver and kidney, but is diagnosed only by sophisticated methods, too costly for this impoverished nation.

"It's no use looking for culprits," said Kabir. "What we need is quick and coordinated action to identify all the poisoned wells and find ways to sanitize the water by filters or additives."

The World Bank has made an initial $32 million available for a 12-month project to test the country's wells. The Swiss government has kicked in $3 million, Bangladesh another $9 million.

Hatkopa, a small village of bamboo huts off the Dhaka-to-Chittagong highway, is a microcosm of the problem. Jabbar is not the only victim. At least 30 more villagers suffer from the tell-tale signs of arsenic poisoning--itchy, white-spotted skin, calloused palms, black warts and pink patches on their feet often mistakenly diagnosed as leprosy.

Scientists are still baffled why some people, like Jabbar, are dying while his wife and children, who drank from the same well, show no visible signs of poisoning.

"We just don't know what makes some sick and not others," said Rahman.

Some months ago a government team came to Hatkopa and tested 64 of its 120 wells. It found only one was not contaminated by arsenic. The team painted the nozzles of the tainted wells red.

Left in limbo about the other wells, the villagers ran their own tests with mashed guava leaves dropped into well samples. If the water turned black it contained arsenic. Only three wells passed the test.

"What shall we do?" asked village elder Abdul Barek. "The other day a man came and said he could give us clean water but we'd have to pay for it. We told him we could not afford to pay so he went away and never came back."

Uli Schmetzer

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