New York Human Rights group Human Rights Watch has issued a new report stating that there are currently about 20 million people living in rural Bangladesh who are drinking water heavily laden with arsenic. While Bangladesh maintains a standard of 50 micrograms of arsenic per liter of water, the evidence for considerable death and illness from exposure to arsenic in water is between 10 and 50 micrograms.
Arsenic is a natural element that can be found in the earth’s crust. It has been used primarily in industry and agriculture, and is also a by-product of copper smelting, mining, and coal burning. Arsenic can enter water sources either from the natural deposits that exist within the earth’s surface or from industrial and agricultural pollution. It is a toxic substance which can be fatal if consumed by humans, and has been known to cause cancer, affect the nervous and respiratory systems, and severely impact child development.
Human Rights Watch is relating the current dire situation in Bangladesh to nepotism and poor governance by the current leaders.
Let’s have a look at the effect of arsenic on the human body.
A World Health Organization report published in 2000 examining this issue offered the following observations, among others:
The contamination of groundwater by arsenic in Bangladesh is the largest poisoning of a population in history, with millions of people exposed. . . . Studies in other countries where the population has had long-term exposure to arsenic in groundwater indicate that 1 in 10 people who drink water containing 500 mg of arsenic per litre may ultimately die from cancers caused by arsenic, including lung, bladder and skin cancers. The rapid allocation of funding and prompt expansion of current interventions to address this contamination should be facilitated.
Arsenic was originally discovered in shallow tube wells across big swaths of rural Bangladesh about 20 years ago, at which time awareness was raised so that the Bangladeshi government would provide deep-water wells for the rural population. Somewhere along the line the government forgot about this endeavour and has yet to do anything about it. The poison is still found in shallow, hand pumped wells in the rural parts of the country, which are the only water sources for the population. One study estimates that around 43,000 people die each year from arsenic-related illnesses in Bangladesh alone, with authors further postulating that between 1 and 5 million of the 90 million children likely to be born in Bangladesh between 2000 and 2030 will die from exposure to arsenic related illnesses, depending on when the problem is resolved.
Further complicating the situation is the healthcare system in Bangladesh. Local medical staff don’t recognize arsenic poisoning unless visible skin lesions are present, but these do not occur in the majority of cases.
To make matters worse, the HRW found that the politicians who were responsible for digging new wells were prioritizing friends and family members rather the areas which needed new wells the most — those with the highest levels of arsenic. Deeper wells can generally reach uncontaminated water, but these are more expensive to dig, and thus, less accessible to the poor.
How Did The World Health Organization Respond?
The World Health Organization has responded harshly to the report, labelling it “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history.” They have also called this a public health emergency. The Bangladeshi government responded by screening around 5 million wells and labelling them with either red for unsafe or green for safe.
Who’s To Blame?
Richard Pearshouse, the senior researcher at the HRW who led the study, has blamed the political leaders of Bangladesh for the unfortunate fate of the rural poor who have been poisoned by this toxic drinking water:
Bangladesh isn’t taking basic, obvious steps to get arsenic out of the drinking water of millions of its rural poor. What we found was basically poor governance. There is no technical problem that can’t be solved if the political will is there. But what we see is that the government is using many of its valuable resources in areas where there is no need for deep tube wells from the government.
How Can You Help?
Spread the word. This situation desperately needs media attention. The more attention this receives, the more people will become outraged and team up to ensure that action is taken. The controversy surrounding this issue has died down considerably since 2006, but little has changed from then until now. Please sign and share this petition. Do what you can to help make a difference. No one should be denied the basic right of safe drinking water.
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