Water Contamination in Bangladesh

A Bangladeshi woman gets water from a well painted red to indicate contamination.

I’ll start by giving you a little information on Bangladesh because if you’re anything like me you don’t know much about it. Bangladesh is located in southern Asia and is surrounded mostly by India (95%), but also has a border with Burma, and sits on the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh has an area of about 55,597 square miles (10% of which is water) and has a population of about 161 million people.  As a comparison, the state of Iowa is 56,271 square miles, and has a population of about 3.5 million people.  Also, during the summer monsoon season much of the country is under water. That’s my way of telling you that Bangladesh is very over populated and is growing, and as population grows so does the need for water.

There are a couple of main issues to look at when talking about Bangladesh’s water crisis.  One is the increased salinity of freshwater in the southern region of the country from the salt waters of the Sea of Bengal.  Blamed mostly on climate change, the salinity is due to raising sea levels, cyclones and sea surges, and increased withdrawal of freshwater upstream (this means there’s less/no water downstream to wash the saline rich sea water back out to sea).  According to research paper titled “Drinking Water Salinity and Maternal Health in Coastal Bangladesh: Implications of Climate Change”, people in the south may be consuming 5-16g/day through its water, well above the recommended dietary intake of 2g/day (note that it’s 5-16g/day through water only and doesn’t take into account how much sodium they get from their food).  The millions of people in this region depend on rivers, ponds, and groundwater for most of their freshwater, however with the increased salinity many are paying for it with their health.

In a 2008 survey by the World Health Organization (WHO) it was found that pregnant women in the south have higher rates of (pre)eclampsia and gestational hypertension, which they hypothesized was due to the increased salinity of the water they are drinking.  High blood pressure has also been linked to high salinity.  The Intersalt Cooperative Research Group found that sodium intake greater than 1.8 g/day was associated with a 3-mmHg increase in systolic blood pressure and 0.1-mmHg increase in diastolic blood pressure which can lead to people becoming hypertensive.  Hypertension can cause high cholesterol, gout, kidney disease, strokes, and puts strain on the heart which can lead to heart disease and heart attacks.

While we may not be able to stop climate change in the foreseeable future there are a couple of things that can be done to help the salinity problem.  The easiest solution is to increase the use of rainwater harvesting and its storage capacity.  Another is exploring desalination technology, however this is often very expensive.  The other, and more widespread problem in Bangladesh is the arsenic contamination of much of the groundwater.

97% of people in Bangladesh have turned to getting their water from underground sources over the past 20-30 years.  This started when the Bangladesh government and Bangladeshi organizations tried to stop the problem of diarrhoeal diseases that has been a problem in Bangladesh throughout history.  These organizations concluded that the epicenter of the disease was sewage contamination of the surface water, and so they started digging thousands of wells to get to the groundwater (there are now over 4 million wells throughout Bangladesh).  However, what they didn’t know when they started this practice is that their groundwater was contaminated with arsenic.  So what are the causes of arsenic in groundwater?  The simplest explanation is that arsenic contamination is naturally caused by water running through arsenic rich sentiments, as is the case in Bangladesh for the most part.  However, it is also used in fertilizer, and is a byproduct of copper smelting, mining and coal burning.  Arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh has now become an epidemic, effecting between 85-125 million people.  So how did it get this bad?

The main reason is because the organization that was responsible for digging wells around the country failed to pay attention to properly testing the groundwater, and for a long time didn’t even test for arsenic!  If they had been testing for arsenic since drilling began they would have realized a long time ago that the water was contaminated.  Also, independent testing of wells has been found to have been inaccurate, leading to wells that were contaminated being labeled as safe.  Now that everyone knows about the problem you would think the government would be quick to help its citizens, but instead it has been criticized for its slow response and doing little to provide safe drinking water.  Because of the governments lack of providing safe drinking water people still drink from wells labeled as unsafe because they have no alternative.  Either they drink the contaminated water or they die of dehydration.

The health problems associated with arsenic poisoning, or arsenicosis, are far reaching and vary from victim to victim.  Among the most common are weakness, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, skin rash, hoarse voice, and hair loss.  In more severe cases you can see skin discoloration (melanosis), cracking of palms and soles (keratosis), gangrene (which leads to amputations) and cancer.  Symptoms can take 5 years to decades to show themselves so people often don’t know they’re infected until it’s too late.  The problems with arsenic poisoning start with deteriorating health, but don’t end there.

There are also societal and mental effects of arsenic poisoning.  In many rural villages people are isolated or forced to leave because of the melanosis and/or keratosis which is often confused with leprosy (sometimes entire villages are isolated).   Men leave their wives, kids are kept home from school to hide their disease, people don’t go to work and so they lose their jobs, men/women can’t find wives/husbands because no one will get close to them.  Once this happens the mental hardship starts for people as they realize they have no one and nothing besides this disease.

You also have to think about the longer reaching effects of this poisoning.  For example, if someone has arsenic poisoning and they lose their appetite they become weak and unable to be on their feet or do anything for long periods of time.  If this person happens to the bread winner of the family all of the sudden the family cannot buy food for itself.  So they send their two kids to go work to bring in money, which keeps them from getting a proper education and moving out of poverty.  And that’s only if the kids are healthy enough.  Most children are drinking contaminated water from the time they’re conceived. So what can we do to stop this cycle of poverty and sub standard health?

There are a few things that can be done to stop the poisoning of the people of Bangladesh.  The most straight ford is to provide people with clean drinking water.  Someone with a mild case of poisoning can completely reverse the effects by drinking clean water, and clean water will help stop the spread in more advanced cases (there are also ways to treat the different specific symptoms, but I’m not going to get into that). MIT researchers say that digging wells deep enough could get them below the arsenic contaminated water, and that rice fields filter the arsenic out of the water.  The rice field filter seems like a good idea, but a couple of problems with deep wells have been found, including the chance of contaminating the deep well with arsenic from above.  As of today there are a number of filters that can filter or absorb the arsenic out of the groundwater, but they have a byproduct of arsenic dense sludge that needs to be disposed of properly or it will just end up making the problem worse.  In my opinion rainwater harvesting is the best way to get clean water and is fairly simple.  In a country that gets, on the low side, 60 inches of rain a year (up to 200 inches), it would seem like a rainwater harvesting system with storage would be the most appropriate way to go.

As is often the case, education is the key to putting a stop to this epidemic.  The people need to be educated on why they’re getting sick, what effects it is having on them, and on what can be done to keep them safe.  After that the government needs to step up and really start pushing for international NGOs in the country to start mitigating the problem and raising money to provide these organizations with the tools they need to provide clean water.  And of course, the international community needs to become more aware of this problem and deal with it sooner vs later.  While there has been an increased presence of NGOs in the country over the past decade they need a lot more support from the government in order to get things done.  Through education and help from NGOs millions of people can be kept from getting sick in Bangladesh.  If you’d like to help please check out these organizations working for clean water in Bangladesh:

www.wateraidamerica.org

www.sos-arsenic.net/

www.ti-bangladesh.org/

A couple of extras: There is a movie called Water Wars: When Drought, Flood and Greed Collide that talks about these problems in Bangladesh.  You can find the movie on Netflix, but here is a trailer:

Also, this is a story about arsenic poisoning in India that I thought was pretty interesting and shows the scale of the problem there.: https://washasia.wordpress.com/2012/04/02/india-west-bengal-youth-have-brittle-bones-from-arsenic-poisoning-army-stops-staffing/

Thanks for reading and please leave a comment letting me know what you thought of the story.

Water Contamination in Bangladesh
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One thought on “Water Contamination in Bangladesh

  • May 25, 2016 at 2:19 am
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    this was really good learning something

    Reply

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