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According to the World Bank Report, an estimated 20 million of its 126 million people assumed to be drinking contaminated water and another 70 million potentially at risk, Bangladesh is facing what has been described as perhaps the largest mass poisoning in history. High concentrations of naturally occurring arsenic have already been found in water from thousands of tubewells, the main source of potable water, in 59 out of Bangladesh's 64 districts. But the question is: who are responsible for this? Is it accident of nature or man (corporate agency) made disaster? Mahmud Hanif explains.

(Dedicated to Dr. Sibtosh Roy)

Mahmud Hanif

Groundwater withdrawal is not very aged experience for Bangladesh. Since 1960's groundwater has been used for agricultural and drinking purpose. Initially in 1960's groundwater consumption has been encouraged by international agencies for HYV rice production. In the late 1960s low lift pumps (LLP) had been rapidly expanded under rental arrangements by the East Pakistan Agricultural Development Corporation (EPADC), making use of readily available surface water sources to spread irrigated HYV boro rice. Deep tubewells (DTW) were also promoted under rental arrangements by EPADC and subsequently by the Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC). From the mid 1970 privately owned shallow tubewells spread rapidly, irrigating HYV boro rice from ground water (Rogley Ben & others, 1999). Another initiative came from those agencies on the principal supply of safe drinking water for rural people. In the 1970s, international agencies headed by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) began pumping millions of dollars of 'aid' money into Bangladesh for tubewells to provide "clean" drinking water (Fred Pearce, 2001). These tubewells ground water consumption has increased widely and as a result of this for the past two decades the water from over a million tube-wells has been slowly poisoning Bangladeshi villagers with naturally occurring arsenic. According to the World Health Organization, the direct result has been the biggest outbreak of mass poisoning in history. Up to half the country's tubewells, now estimated to number 10 million, are poisoned (Fred Pearce, 2001). The large scale unplanned withdrawal of ground water may be theoretically the main reason of Arsenic contamination in Bangladesh (M. Hamidur RAHMAN, Undated).

Causes of Arsenic Contamination
The arsenic probably originates in the Himalayan headwaters of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, and has lain undisturbed beneath the surface of the region's deltas for thousands of years in thick layers of fine alluvial mud smeared across the area by the rivers (British Geological Survey, 1999). The poisoning began to occur as millions of kiloliters of water was being pumped out from deep within underground reservoirs. As a result the water level dropped and exposed the arsenic-bearing pyrite to air leading to oxidisation, a reaction that flushed arsenic into the remaining water ( Currently the high probability zone, moderate probability zone and low probability zone of arsenic contaminated area are together cover almost about 60% of the total country area. Arsenic pollution in ground water of Bangladesh is possibly the largest mass poisoning case in the world now.

Who are Responsible?
In the late 1960s international agencies advocated using groundwater for HYV rice production and it was welcomed by Pakistan Government. Initially equipment's had been rapidly expanded under the rental arrangement by EPADC. After the independence of Bangladesh the World Bank mission produced a sector survey report concerning land and water resources in Bangladesh in 1972. This report emphasized small-scale projects and groundwater consumption for high-yielding varieties. But newly independent Bangladesh Government had no question about World Bank suggestions and main World Bank suggestions were accommodated in the first five-year plan (1973/74-1977/78).

World Bank Involvement in Groundwater Withdrawal Activities
Project Name
IBRD/IDA at Board* USD $ Million
Approval Date
Project Status
Shallow Tubewell and Low Lift Pump Irrigation Development Project
Deep Tubewells Project (02)
Hand Tubewells Project
Low Lift Pumps Project
Shallow Tubewells Project
East Pakistan Tubewells Project

Note: Author prepares the table.

On the other hand, in the early 1970s, those aid agencies, primarily the World Bank and the United Nations International Children's and Educational Fund (UNICEF) suggested using tubewell for clean drinking water. At that time most of Bangladesh's rural population got its drinking water from surface ponds which occurred water-borne diseases. The agencies advocated tapping the groundwater as drinking source. This seemed to be a simple, cheap and effective, solution to the problem. Groundwater could be easily tapped by constructing a simple steel hand pump. Soon after, millions of dollars were spent on digging shallow tubewells by western engineers and aid agencies. But no one told the government or the villagers to test for arsenic. The villagers dug more wells (Harvard University).

Voice of disloyalty
In its own report, World Bank defends itself stating, "previously, the World Bank was not involved in the mass provision of water supply in the rural Bangladesh. However, when the Bank learned about the arsenic problem in February 1997, it immediately began working with the Government of Bangladesh to tackle this public health dilemma and to prepare an arsenic mitigation project".

After contacting UNICEF, Reuters News Service reported, "UNICEF has rejected claims in the past that its own encouragement of well-drilling has exacerbated the contamination of Bangladesh's groundwater by arsenic, which has been described by international officials as the biggest mass poisoning in history. The poison occurs naturally in rocks and sediments but its concentrations are believed to have risen in large areas of Bangladesh for complex geological reasons (Reuters News Service, 18 august 2000). But available documents, which presented earlier in the discussion, do not support the statements made by the both organizations.

Pace of Arsenic Poisoning
According to the World Bank Report, "With more than an estimated 20 million of its 126 million people assumed to be drinking contaminated water and another 70 million potentially at risk, Bangladesh is facing what has been described as perhaps the largest mass poisoning in history. High concentrations of naturally occurring arsenic have already been found in water from thousands of tubewells, the main source of potable water, in 59 out of Bangladesh's 64 districts" (World Bank, 2000).

According to the UN Development Programme "Twenty thousand people could die each year. The possible death number is difficult to calculate because some cancers typically take 20 years to emerge. Smith estimates that in many parts of the southern Bangladesh, one in ten adult deaths could soon be from arsenic-triggered cancers of internal organs, such as the bladder and lungs. People are made more vulnerable by poor nutrition, the large volumes of water they drink and because they may ingest more arsenic through eating rice irrigated by poisoned water and then boiled in it (Pearce, 2001).

Dipanker Chakrabarti who worked 6 years in Bangladesh remarked, "one of the worst villagers I have ever visited" is Stadium Para in Meherpur district, right on the border with India. In this area, nine residents have already died of cancerous ulcers caused by arsenic. One was only 25 years old. But, after five years of surveying, he nominates the southeastern village of Seladi as "in all probability the most arsenic-contaminated village in the world." Here 72 out of 73 tubewells are contaminated. No fewer than 21 contain arsenic at more than 1,000 parts per billion, and the highest at 4,000 ppb, or four hundred times the WHO limit.

Statistics of Arsenic Calamity

Total Number of districts in Bangladesh
Total area of Bangladesh
148,393 km2
Total Population of Bangladesh
120 million
WHO arsenic drinking water standard
0.01 ppm
Maximum permissible limit of arsenic in drinking water of Bangladesh
0.05 ppm
Number of districts surveyed for arsenic contamination
Number of districts having arsenic above maximum permissible limit
Area of affected 59 districts
126,134 km2
Population at risk of the affected districts
75 million
Potentially exposed population
24 million
Number of patients suffering from arsenicosis
Total number of tubewells in Bangladesh
4 million
Total number of affected tubewells
1.12 million

Source: BBS, Dhaka Community Hospital, NIPSOM, DPHE. (cited in Dainichi Consultant, Inc.,Gifu, Japan. Last modified: 25 March 1999)

How Manifested Arsenic Issue
In 1985, Bangladesh officials were notified of increasing numbers of people crossing the border into India to seek medical treatment for skin aliments suspected of being related to arsenic poisoning. In 1993, the government in Bangladesh established a committee to look into the problem but very little testing were carried out. Chakraborti began sending letters to the Bangladeshi government as well as to UNICEF and WHO in 1994, but they continued dismissing the extent of danger. Facing a growing health crisis, the Dhaka Community Hospital has begun its own independent testing of tube wells. In February, the hospital organized a conference to bring together international specialists and medical experts in an attempt to find solution (Mantell Liz, 1998).

International Fund for Whom?
Until 1998 the international agencies did not take any initiative for arsenic, the mass poisoning of Bangladesh groundwater. In August 1998, WHO, UNICEF and other international agencies agreed to provide funds to conduct more research and attempt to find alternative supply of safe drinking water. The World Bank has agreed to make a $35 million loan to Bangladesh but most of the funding will be used to re-test the tube wells. UNICEF has allocated $300,000 as part of a Development Project to provide safe water for 200 of the worst affected villages. There after $800,000 was allocated for research in five sub-districts through non-governmental organizations such as Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, the Grameen Bank and Dhaka Community Hospital. The organization plans to launch an appeal for another $17 million to expand such projects to 15 other arsenic-contaminated areas (Mantell Liz, 1998 & WHO, 2000).

Currently the active agencies are the UNDP, the UK's Department for International Development, the Netherlands Ministry of Development Corporation, Denmark's DANIDA, the Japanese Government, the Swiss Development Corporation, WHO, UNICEF, FAO, Australia's AUSAID, Canada's CIDA, and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

However the flood of foreign funds does not make any significant changes in the lives of most villagers. Outcomes of foreign fund are summarized below:

  1. Research works identified that arsenic contamination in Bangladesh has been occurred since last two decade for its geological complex.
  2. Funds are used to re-test tubewells.
  3. A flood of foreign consultants gearing up for a junket on an even bigger scale than the original tubewell programme.

Scientist and activist Dipankar Chakraborti categorically stated that, "I cannot accept that 50 percent of the fund will go to foreign consultants. Bangladesh has become an experimental station of Western countries" (Pearce Fred, 2001).

On the other hand hundreds of thousands rural people are suffering from arsenicosis. In daily newspaper now many reports are published on broken marriage, as husbands send disfigured wives back to their parents. Some people think the poison can be passed on from parent to child so many arsenic poisoned women have problems finding husbands. Men have been refused jobs, children have been abandoned and families have split up. But victims do not know who are responsible for 'Devil's water' and what is the best solution to treat arsenic poisoning.


  1. British Geological Survey (BGS), 1999, Groundwater Studies of Arsenic Contamination in Bangladesh.
  2. Gifu. 1999, Statistics of Arsenic Calamity, Dainichi Consultant, Inc., Gifu, Japan, 1999. Hanif M. 2001, Water Resources Management in Bangladesh: An international Involvement, Meghbarta, June 2001.
  3. Mantell Liz, 1998, Millions in Bangladesh face slow poisoning from arsenic-contaminated water, 2 December 1998,WSWS.
  4. Pearce Fred, 2001, Bangladesh's arsenic poisoning: who is to blame?, The Courier (UNESCO) January 2001.
  5. Rahman M. Hamidur, Undated, Arsenic Pollution in Groundwater in Bangladesh.
  6. Rogley Ben, B. Harriss-White and Sugata Bose (edited). 1999, Sonar Bangla ? Agricultural Growth and Agrarian Change in West Bengal and Bangladesh, Sage Publications India Pvt. LTD, 1999.
  7. World Bank, 2000,The Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation Water Supply Project: Addressing a Massive Public Health Crisis, June 2000, World Bank.
  8. WHO, 2000,Towards an assessment of the socioeconomic impact of arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh, World Health Organization (WHO), 2000, Geneva.

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