The Daily Star Roundtable:
"Arsenic Polution: Immediate tasks & future Vision"- February1998

Following is the full text of the discussions held.


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Mahfuz Anam: Is arsenic present in ground water all over the world?

Alex Redekopp: It is a global problem. Many countries, including Canada, have arsenic problems, arsenic in ground water. Austria has some serious problems.

There are treatment methods to remove arsenic which is practised in Chile. There are large water-treatment plants that can and do remove arsenic. The question is, where to dump the sludge. But that is a different issue.

The question of ponds and filters were raised. You can treat surface water protected using pond sand filters.

The bid problem is operation and maintenance. Things have to maintain things. This is a problem in this country and others. But this applies to tubewells. The maintenance is minimal. It can be done and is being done effectively.

Mahfuz Anam: What is the relationship between the use of chemical fertiliser for soil cultivation and ground contamination.

Redekopp: I am not sure if we have an answer for this. That is an area that needs to be investigated, the impact of fertilisers on ground water and perhaps in this upcoming project of the World Bank and my colleague here, there will be a provision to investigate that. I hope there will be. There is an area there that needs to be looked at very carefully.

Babar Kabir: I would like to clarify the World Bank position on how we are approaching this problem and how we are seeing this problem.

The number of people affected in Bangladesh by far out numbers anything seen in the world. There are about 18 countries that have faced this arsenic problem. But they are in thousands or, maximum, tens of thousands, excepting West Bengal. In Bangladesh and West Bengal, we are talking in millions. The magnitude and scale has never been same. That has to be understood in why a lot of caution is being taken in tackling this problem.

The World Bank is also concerned about the lack of quality data. While realising that this is a very, very urgent problem that needs to be addressed, we also would like to see that the decisions or strategies that are taken are sustainable. The problem is not of sinking money literally into the ground, but trying to see if that is a lasting solution.

We also recognise that this is not basically a health problem and also that the only treatment for arsenic patients is the provision of arsenic-free water. We see this as a water-supply or water-management problem.

We in the World Bank are trying to share all the information that we have. Till date, what has been agreed between the bank and the government, is that some options will be provided to the villagers at the community level. So the approach is basically that the people should own the solutions. At this stage the World Bank has no concept of what it is going to be, whether it is going to be surface, whether its going to be ground, because we are also going to depend on the British-funded hydro-geological study. Nobody is really sure of what triggered the release of arsenic into the water.

Mahfuz Anam: So this problem wasn't there before?

Babar Kabir: Our understanding is that the problem is of geological nature. Arsenic was present. Our knowledge base was so weak that we really gave no importance or there was no manifestation which was why we never understood that there was an arsenic problem. It is only from the late eighties that people started talking about arsenic in Bangladesh. The first patient was identified in 1993. Before that, ground water was never tested for arsenic.

Mahfuz Anam: Nowhere else in the world so many people actually consume ground water as we do in Bangladesh. Is that true?

Babar Kabir: Not necessarily.

This arsenic is basically of geological nature. There was a scare in the newspapers that this came from the arsenic-coated poles of REB. That has been ruled out because the amount of arsenic being generated is basically geological. It is there in the soil and is somehow being released into the ground water.

I am a geo-hydrologist by profession. I am confident that this is a geological matter. But how it is being triggered is a matter of more scientific investigation. We are hoping that the British-funded project is going to provide us with a lot more information. We have to also understand whether we are at the peak, not more than 41 districts will be affected.

The study is a hydro-geological one being done by the British survey group along with five partner organisations in Bangladesh which are the Geological Survey of Bangladesh, Public Health Engineering, Ground Water Circle of the Water Board, Dhaka University, Rajshahi University and the British consulting firm. It started from 1 January and the formal launching will take place on 15 February. It will cover 250 thanas of Bangladesh.

We are also concerned about the possibility of a distortion of information because the samples of a thana or a village does not cover all the tubewells of that thana or village. The scenario may change dramatically. The test is very random, say 10 tubewells per village while a village may have up to a hundred, two hundred tubewells.

In order to test this concept, UNDP is financing an emergency programme which has twin objectives. One is, all these projects are going to take time. The government procedures are there, bank procedures are there, trying to understand the problem is there. So with this understanding, UNDP stepped in with an emergency programme which is covering 200 villages in which the government and Dhaka Community Hospital have identified as having multiple arsenic affected persons so that the people do not suffer while the bank and the government start something.

While providing emergency relief to them, it was also a concern that we try to test out whether all the tubewells are affected or not. When we say that this village is affected, do we mean that all the tubewells are affected or not? Which brings me to Deepak's question of Type A, Type B and Type C.

It is not a thana that we are calling Type A or Type B, it is a village. We believe that the problem is at the village level and it is affecting all the villages and the solutions are with them. We from the bank can only provide them with certain options. This is a bank-assisted government project. We also feel this is not something which only the government can do. This has to be a national effort. The communities will have a major say. So the focus of the whole project will e the community, the villages.

Dhaka Community Hospital is implementing the UNDP emergency programme. They have completed 54 of the 200 villages. We are having information coming in. Its being put onto the computer base. It could be analysed to see whether the hypotheses is true that there would be 60 to 70 per cent villages with no interventions.

This makes it complicated to answer the question as to whether we should rule out tubewells and shift absolutely to safe surface water. It has to be a combination. There would be villages which would go only for surface water because ground water would not be available. There would be villages which would have a mix between ground water and surface water. So solutions will be determined as the mitigation programmes goes on.

Mahfuz Anam: Normally in a country, say India, Pakistan or some countries close to us, what is the source of drinking water? Say in the United States? Is it rivers? Is it underground water? What is the water that Americans are drinking?

Afsan Chowdhury: Treated surface water.

 

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