& Other Environmental Concerns including Climate Change
Anuwara Begum, in her 60s, cries while remembering her son-in-law, a farmer who died from arsenic-related illnesses. She herself has arsenic-related health conditions, but has never seen a doctor - Iruain village of Laksam Upazila in Comilla district, Bangladesh, March 5, 2016. Photo: © 2016 Atish Saha/Human Rights Watch. Use provided by Creative Commons License. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/legalcod
Jhohora Akhter, 30, of Iruain village, draws water from the family well, which is contaminated with arsenic. Jhohora’s mother Jahanara Begum died of arsenic-related health conditions. Her father suffers from diabetes, an illness associated with chronic arsenic exposure. Her brother Ruhul Amin also suffers arsenic-related health conditions. Photo: © 2016 Atish Saha for Human Rights Watch. Use provided by Creative Commons License. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/legalcod
Brief Description of Bangladesh
In area, Bangladesh is a country about the size of the state of Iowa. Currently it has a population of nearly 165 million (compared to less than 3.2 million in Iowa), making it one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
Population this dense, along with poverty and inequality, causes many problems in addition to the arsenic problem. Approximately 63% of the population is considered rural. The economy has improved markedly over the past 15 years, resulting in less overall poverty. Still, in rural areas, 35% of the population fall below the poverty line, and an additional 29% are considered moderately poor.
If you would like to catch a glimpse of rural life in Bangladesh, click on the arrow below.
Brief History of Arsenic in Bangladesh
After forming a new nation in 1971, in the 1970s and 1980s, development agencies, including Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the organization with which I worked in the 1980s, saw the need to switch from drinking untreated surface water, carrying many water-related diseases, such as cholera. These were killing people, especially infants and small children, at very high rates. The shallow aquifer underlying most of the country seemed like a good alternate source, to be tapped by shallow tube wells. Arsenic was not commonly tested for then. However, arsenic was found in many of these wells, starting in 1993.
Eventually it was found in very high levels over much of the south and parts of the north, but is less serious there. It is also a very serious problem in parts of West Bengal, India, to the west of Bangladesh. It is true that arsenic poisoning is a very serious problem in some other parts of the world, but none are so severe and affect as many people as in Bangladesh and West Bengal.
For a time, arsenic was the number one issue getting attention in Bangladesh. However, interest in the problem and numbers of organizations assisting have dropped off, including MCC stopping their small program in 2008. The magnitude of need is much greater than current groups can handle.
Brief History of MCC with Arsenic in Bangladesh
Since before the inception of the crisis and until 2008, MCC worked in one of the most heavily impacted areas of Bangladesh. Where MCC mostly worked then was located in the SE part of the country. On the map below, the area is approximately denoted by the reddish circle. In this region there are major areas that are highly contaminated within the districts of Comilla, Noakhali and Feni.
Within this area and adjacent districts MCC was heavily involved in promoting irrigation through its rower pump. It also was involved to some extent with tube wells.
For a few years, MCC had a small arsenic project, working mainly on rain harvesting as an alternative for drinking water. Since 2008, they have moved all their operations to far northern Bangladesh, where for the most part arsenic is not a problem, and are currently not doing any work with the arsenic situation in Bangladesh.
There are also many additional organizations that had worked with the arsenic problem but stopped doing so in the last 15 years. This has exacerbated the problem of lack of extension, education etc. that is needed in many areas where arsenic poisoning is prevalent, especially among the poor and very poor.