Why be concerned?
What does the future hold for Bangladesh regarding the arsenic crisis? There is good news in that there are reports of people being more aware of the arsenic issue, at least in some localitiies.
In addition, there has been much research, and resultant innovative ideas, since the arsenic issue was discovered. On the down side, donations are down and with that, active non govermental organizations (NGOs) working on the problem in outreach and mitigation. And even with some publicity, there are still 20,000,000 people exposed to high levels of arsenic on a regular basis.
Once arsenic was the number one issue getting attention in Bangladesh, and now it is much further down on the list of concerns. There are numerous other legitimate concerns to deal with, e.g., refugee concerns, global warming etc.
It can be forgivable to not think of the arsenic crisis in Bangladesh (and other countries) as a large disaster. After all it has been around for decades. It is largely silent. People in North America hardly hear about it at all these days.
Yet for all that, by many researchers, it is considered a huge disaster. Many consider it a disaster bigger than Chernobyl or Bhopal. It certainly has killed many more people. Chernobyl (see picture below) killed between 4,000 to 60,000 people in terms of direct and indirect means. It is difficult to get a very precise figure. Bhopal killed 20,000. Yet the figure for Bangladesh is hundreds of thousands of people.
Chernobyl, occurring in 1986, is considered the worst accidental nuclear disaster in history. Yet in terms of human deaths and associated human affects, the arsenic disaster in Bangladesh and West Bengal is far more deadly but has only received a small fraction of the attention Chernobyl has.
The arsenic crisis has killed more people than all the typhoons that have hit the country since 1971, the year it became a nation.
It also has debilitated many, caused great social unrest and is responsible for limiting the mental development in many children. One fairly recent research article concluded with these words:
Arsenic toxicity affects millions of people in Bangladesh but surprisingly, still remains a neglected public health concern… Immediate public health action from stakeholders including the government, NGOs and donors is required to reduce the burden of chronic disease caused by arsenic exposure in Bangladesh.
A NOAA picture of the Great
Bhola cyclone that hit the coast of what now is Bangladesh and West Bengal with horrific effect in November of 1970, killing more than 500,000 people.
It is easy to note with horror such tragedies. It is much more difficult to have concern and publicity for the arsenic tragedy. Its quiet and unseen working does not raise widespread alarm, yet over time it has killed more that all the cyclones put together since Bangladesh has become a nation.
Rice irrigation is much more common than it used to be, especially during the dry season. Many areas are now tripled-cropped, with crops grown during the formerly fallow dry season. And in parts of the country much of the irrigation is using arsenic laden shallow ground water that is being brought up, and added to the surface soil. This brings up two concerns that while secondary to the importance of arsenic in drinking water are still worth being aware of.
The first is the uptake of arsenic into the rice crop. Rice, more than most crops, is known for its uptake of arsenic. As the major food of Bangladesh, this has the strong potential to adversely effect people who eat it , although how it is prepared for cooking can potentially reduce the arsenic consumed. Arsenic increases in the rice crop (and other crops that uptake arsenic) has implications not only for those who grow and consume it, but also for other areas of the country, to which it is exported.
The second major concern is the effect on the soil. Yield reductions are being seen in soil that is contaminated with arsenic. Research is being conducted in how to mitigate for that - no easy task.
How is that going to affect usability of that soil in years to come? Significant crop decreases have already been seen. With 165 million people, Bangladesh needs every square inch of soil it can use, and needs it to be as productive as possible.
A Bangladesh field of rice. The largest rice crop is now produced through irrigation. Where arsenic contaminated groundwater is used, there are potential implications for the increased consumption of arsenic and for sustainability of the soil to continue to be able to to support large yields of crops.
Questions regarding the future
How will the rise of cancers be handled especially among the poor? How will increases in other conditions, such as diabetes, be managed? How will this impact the rural workforce? How will the poor handle many people not able to work? How will increased health costs in the future be managed? What will be done about decreased cognitive ability in children consuming arsenic? How will this play a role in entrenching poverty even more firmly for the next generation, causing a poverty trap? These and many more questions need to be carefully considered and answered.
Read more regarding the arsenic situation at the following links: