An estimated 43,000 Bangladeshis are dying each year from arsenic poisoning. The government has failed to solve a known problem of more than 20 years as close to 20 million people still drink water with unacceptably high levels of arsenic. Human Rights Watch says that nepotism by politicians who prioritize the needs of their home regions over cleaning up the deadly water supply has allowed the problem to persist.
The scope of the problem is staggering. There are still large swaths of the country where naturally occurring groundwater is found in more than 80 percent of wells. Ten million wells across the country are shallow, presenting a major health crisis in areas where arsenic levels are elevated. In an ironic twist, many of the wells were dug decades ago through the support of UNICEF and World Bank as a way to give people access to clean water.
The problem of arsenic contamination in drinking water was noted in West Bengal, India, and Bangladesh in the 1980s. By 1995 researchers in Calcutta presented findings on the effects of the poisoning on the local population. One study of 3,500 wells showed that one-quarter had more than 50 micrograms per liter of arsenic when the acceptable rate set by the WHO is less than 10 micrograms per liter. The international community galvanized to respond and evaluate the problem further, but by 2006 the effort stalled.
“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, in a release. “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.”
Pearshouse and his fellow researchers evaluated about 125,000 water points installed by the Bangladeshi government between 2006 and 2012. They found that only a little more than one-third of the wells were installed in areas where the availability of safe drinking water is low. The majority went to areas where there was, at least, some access to safe water and 10 percent were installed in areas already covered.
For children, arsenic poisoning it can hinder development and increase cancer risks, even later in life. Adults suffer from skin lesions, impaired brain function, increased risk of heart attack and many more problems. People who suffer from arsenic-related health conditions keep drinking from the same water sources and say they have few treatment options.
“There are no government-installed water sources in this area,” said Khobor, a farmer living in Bilmamudpur village, with arsenic-related skin lesions on his chest and feet, to Human Rights Watch. “Look at my children! Even if we feed them as best we can and look after them well, they will fall sick from arsenic in the water.”
Khobor says that he was told the water in his nearby well contained 250 micrograms per liter of arsenic – a dangerously high amount. Yet, his family continues using the well containing water Khobor knows could kill them because there are no other alternatives.
What makes the problem particularly abhorrent is the fact that it has been known for decades and little is being done to prioritize solving it. Solutions are relatively simple, digging wells deep enough so they to not take in groundwater can give people access to safe water. In recent years some evidence is beginning to show that the acceptable threshold of arsenic in water is likely lower than the current WHO recommendations, meaning that people drinking water right at the limit may still be at risk.