Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

A nation poisoned

The Economist  December 22, 2001


MORE than 10m wells were sunk in Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal in the 1980s and 1990s so that people could stop drinking dirty surface water. Now, however, it seems that the water in many of these wells has been contaminated by arsenic in the surrounding rock. Between 35m and 77m people are thought to be drinking this water. The skin lesions that come from prolonged exposure to arsenic are already evident on the hands and feet of many villagers. It is "the largest mass poisoning of a population in history", according to a report published by the World Health Organisation last year.

In some places, arsenic exposure is 50 times what it deems safe. Scientists from Bangladesh, Britain and the United States bent their minds to the problem at a conference in November at Columbia University in New York. The scores of experts included epidemiologists, hydro-geologists and geochemists. Drilling deeper wells is one option they favoured. The ground below 150 metres (500 feet) deep is said to contain much less arsenic. A careful survey might find places where pure water could be drawn from shallow, and therefore cheaper, wells. Other possibilities proposed were the distribution of water filters, and making better use of the region's abundant rainfall.

The main requirements, it was suggested, were political will and, of course, money. The cost of digging the original contaminated wells over the course of some 20 years was around $500m, much of which was provided by the United Nations Children's Fund and various development banks. To drill a significant number of deeper wells could cost twice that. Though donors would blench, the scientists at the Columbia conference argued that the money would immeasurably improve the lives of a huge number of people. Apart from disfiguring the skin, after two decades arsenic poisoning has a high risk of causing fatal cancer in the lungs, liver, bladder and kidneys.

This seems to be a rare instance in international aid work where research is ahead of implementation. "Our biggest impediment has been raising financial resources," says Vanessa Tobin, who runs the UN Children's Fund's clean water programme. But how can the money be raised? The World Bank allocated $40m three years ago towards solving the arsenic problem but, it seems, there is little to show for it so far. The Fund, which is already stretched thin throughout the world, has only a modest "remediation" operation in place in the affected areas. No money can be expected from Bangladesh itself, which is one of the world's poorest countries.

America is, as always, the obvious source of aid. The Bush administration may not be in a generous mood, and has not exactly burnished its environmental credentials of late: indeed, it recently tried (and failed) to raise the allowable level of arsenic in America. But the people affected by the arsenic in Bangladesh and West Bengal are mostly Muslims, a group Mr Bush has sought to get on his side in the fight against terrorism. A big donation might be no bad public-relations move.

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