|DEADLY DRINKING IN BANGLADESH
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
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
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
By 1997, local bureaucrats, politicians and international skeptics finally
accepted the magnitude of the problem. By then it was too late for many
"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
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,"
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."