Friday, December 26, 2008

Water, Water Everywhere

The largest mass poisoning in history is under way right now in Bangladesh--and it is man-made; in fact, it is the result of a massive, misguided, philanthropic intervention by the United Nations, specifically the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), and the World Bank along with the World Health Organization (WHO). The scope of the disaster exceeds the radioactive contamination and deaths caused by Chernobyl, the world's worst nuclear power plant catastrophe, and by most of the major wars and infectious epidemics of history.

Although the area now called Bangladesh, the homeland of the "Bengals" or "Bengali" people, has been the home of evolving civilizations for more than 4,000 years, as a discrete political entity it was first partitioned from India in 1947 becoming Eastern Pakistan. Religious and cultural unrest led to the bloody India-Pakistan War of 1971, culminating in the establishment of the independent country of Bangladesh.

A densely populated and impoverished nation, Bangladesh is flooded yearly by devastating monsoon rains. Its economy was once dependent on the export of jute plant fibers but these are now largely replaced worldwide by plastics. It now depends on the cultivation of rice and the production of cloth for export. The embryonic democratic government has been plagued by corruption, bureaucracy, and inefficiency.

Prior to 1970, despite limited water purification and poor sanitation, most of the population of Bangladesh depended on the surface waters of rivers and lakes for drinking. Epidemics of cholera and other infectious diseases from contaminated drinking water were frequent; with no national or other effective health services, the death rates--for example, of children--were some of the highest in the world.

But the geographic area of Bangladesh lies over a vast, alluvial water table where clear waters seep slowly, for millennia, from the Himalayan spring run-offs and monsoon rains towards the sea. And in 1971, principally under the impetus of UNICEF with the help of the World Bank, the international community embarked on an enormous project to fund the drilling of more than a million tube wells throughout Bangladesh to tap this water table and bring water which was free of bacterial contamination to tens of thousands of impoverished villages. Local populations were employed to drill the wells, and a widespread publicity campaign was implemented to introduce local peoples to this new source of clear water.

There were local myths that called the deep flows "devil's water." Some local legends knew the deep water to be subtly poisonous. But the drilling and publicity campaigns proceeded.

Arsenic poisoning is indeed subtle, and chronic. It may take years--even a decade or more--for the toxin to build up in the human system and wreak its disastrous effects. Through the 1980s more and more cases of skin sores and cancers, of internal organ failures, and of neurological deterioration emerged. When the sufferers were seen at modern clinics and hospitals, the diagnosis of arsenic poisoning could be made. But health resources in Bangladesh, both for diagnosis and for treatment, were few and far between.

Scientists first found toxic levels of arsenic in Bangladesh drinking water in the late 1980s. These findings were first published in the scientific literature in 1990. Yet official recognition of the problem was not announced until 1993. And a significant country-wide evaluation project was not initiated until 1998. Due to bureaucratic inefficiencies, by 2001 only about one percent of the tube wells in Bangladesh had been tested for arsenic contamination. But evidence was mounting that the problem was widespread and severe.

It is now estimated that some 50 to 75 million people--up to half the population of Bangladesh--are suffering or in danger from arsenic contamination of tube-well water. And the vast majority of these people are beyond the reach of medical diagnostic or treatment services.

People ask, why wasn't the deep water tested for arsenic early on? It was well known that a lot of ground water in South-East Asia is contaminated with arsenic. And why weren't early signs heeded with alarm, and responded to with concern and urgency? And why, even now, does it seem so difficult to mobilize effective remediation--testing widely, and then sealing off wells that are contaminated; drilling of deeper--or in some cases more shallow--wells to access uncontaminated reservoirs; and getting effective diagnosis and treatment to these suffering and endangered poor?

Philanthropy can be a powerful force for good. And yet it must be administered very thoughtfully, very carefully.