ARSENIC contamination in ground water has been a public health concern for Bangladesh since 1990s. Twenty million people are exposed to arsenic contamination, with some 65,000 suffering from arsenic-related diseases and an estimated 43,000 people dying of such diseases every year. An ICDDR,B study shows that chronic exposure to higher arsenic concentration may cause more deaths among young adult. The study shows that young adults who died in the survey area from cancer, cerebrovascular, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases are found to have a higher exposure to arsenic in water. In 2016, a Human Rights Watch study made similar claims saying that one to five million of the 90 million children estimated to be born between 2000 and 2030 will die from exposure to arsenic. In 1999–2006, the government, donors and NGOs made concerted efforts to mitigate arsenic contamination. The process has remained neglected for about a decade now and the programmes lost momentum, leaving large majority of rural population exposed to arsenic contamination.
In general, water quality in Bangladesh is poor. Seventy-five million Bangladeshis, about a half of the population, drink contaminated water having arsenic and E coli bacteria. Farming activities, particularly rice farming with shallow tube wells, are threatened by arsenic contamination. Multiple scientific studies show that the build-up of arsenic in soil associated with the use of arsenic-contaminated irrigation water led to elevated levels of arsenic in paddy soil, which eventually made it to rice grains. The arsenic content of lowland or paddy grain is generally much higher than that of upland cereal crops because of the relatively high availability of soil arsenic under reduced conditions. Government and non-governmental programmes largely focus on safe water devices, mostly deep tube-wells. There are, however, allegations that the less transparent process of installation and political influence have made the programmes ineffective as some 5,000 wells supposed to be arsenic-free are found to have been contaminated by arsenic. The government programmes do not make it a priority to install new wells in areas considering the level risk of arsenic contamination. Media also report politicians often divert these new wells for their supporters, depriving rural citizens. More importantly, scientists have already warned about the continued dependence on groundwater, because with it, comes the challenge of depleting water tables that may cause arsenic contamination of water supply.
In such a situation, it is apparent that the government’s attitude as though the problem of arsenic contamination in drinking water has been mostly solved is wrong. It should not only strengthen mitigation programmes involving all other stakeholders, but also expand it to include initiatives that will promote the use of appropriate filtres to purify water and encourage rain-water harvest. A strict monitoring must be in place to ensure that safe water distribution process is not unduly influenced.
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