Presence of arsenic in almost all regions of the country is no recent find. It is more than two decades ago when arsenic in alarmingly high levels -well above the nationally accepted (50 ppb) limit --was detected in the ground water of 59 of the 64 districts. The frightening effects of consumption and even use of arsenic-contaminated water in household chores warranted both immediate and long-term action. But there was no ready solution for the government to stop the menace from spreading and taking new locations under its clutch.
In recent times, except for occasional media reports, arsenic pollution is not much talked about as though the threats are no more or the problem has been mitigated. But a study by Human Rights Watch sometime ago reveals that the situation now is scarier than it was initially thought to be. Arsenic being a silent killer manifests itself over time in the form of skin lesions, cancer, and cardiovascular and lung diseases. The study says nearly 20 million people are still drinking arsenic-laced water in Bangladesh. Prevalence of the menace has not declined, the study says, although millions of wells were tested and thousands of safe ones having been bored to avert a major health crisis.
There are conflicting reports regarding the actual state of arsenic contamination in the country. Initially, way back in 2003, there were some well directed moves to ascertain the situation and some precautionary steps were also taken. According to government claims, 5.0 million rural tube wells were tested and painted green or red to indicate their safe or unsafe types respectively. However, how far this action was able to keep people away from drinking or using the unsafe tube wells and whether that helped to mitigate the problem has not been analysed as yet. It is indeed surprising that whatever alertness and mitigation efforts were in place some twenty years ago seem to have dissipated for the most part.
Arsenic is found in water from shallow tube wells across huge swathes of rural Bangladesh. Although deep tube wells can often reach groundwater of better quality, government programmes to install sufficient new wells do not seem to have worked as yet. Researchers say that mass arsenic contamination can be substantially contained by drilling wells deeper than 500 feet. If this be the case, wells and other types of safe water projects to supply water to the worst exposed 20 million people should be provided without delay.
In order that the anti-arsenic drive is carried out meaningfully, it is of high importance that the government revisits its programmes in the light of the achievements and failures. This will help evaluate and monitor the present situation and at the same time reshape and revise, where necessary, programmes to effectively address the problems in vulnerable locations. It is clear from the scope and nature of the problem that actions to mitigate it have to be long-engaging -- a continuous battle to say the least.