The Devil's Water: The Introduction of Tube Wells to the Indian Subcontinent Was Supposed to Bring about a Public Health Revolution; Instead, It Has Created a Crisis of Unprecedented Proportions. in What Has Been Described as the Worst Mass Poisoning of Humans in History, as Many as 500 Million People Have Been Exposed to Arsenic-Contaminated Water

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When water flowed from one of the first tube wells installed in India, a local villager was heard to say: 'The Devil's water is coming'. Little did they know how right they were.

For generations, people living in developing countries have relied on surface water for their daily water supply. But sources such as ponds and lakes are ideal breeding grounds for a range of waterborne diseases, including cholera, typhoid, parasitic infections and diarrhoeal diseases.

In the 1960s, the UN International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) decided to try to tackle this problem, believing that the answer lay in gaining access to groundwater. The search for a simple, cost-effective method of doing so led to the development of the tube well--essentially a metal pipe sunk down until it reaches an the underground aquifer and then connected to a simple hand pump.

And UNICEF wasn't alone: numerous aid organisations sank tube wells, as did millions of private individuals. Today, there are an estimated 12 million tube wells in Bangladesh alone, with around 95 per cent of the country's more than 130 million people relying on them for their daily drinking water supply.

For farmers, these new wells were a godsend. Not only could they gain access to 'safe' drinking water, but they could also irrigate their crops as and when they wished. But unbeknown to UNICEF, millions of the wells were tapping in to groundwater that was potentially even more deadly than the polluted water sources they were designed to replace.

HIDDEN KILLER

Dr Dipankar Chakraborti, director of research and head of the School of Environmental Studies (SOES) at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, began to study the problem in 1988. 'It was while visiting my parents' village in West Bengal that I became aware that some people were suffering from severe skin complaints,' he says. 'I decided to take some water samples for analysis, and the results revealed that the water contained high levels of arsenic.'

Chakraborti and his team set about testing water from other locations throughout West Bengal and regularly found high levels of arsenic. But the state government didn't respond to Chakraborti's reports. Indeed, it wasn't until 1993 that the government admitted publicly that arsenic was contaminating the groundwater.

West Bengal and Bangladesh are neighbours, both located within the Ganges Delta. As they are geologically similar, it would seem logical that if West Bengal's groundwater system contained high, levels of arsenic, then so,too would that of Bangladesh. And sure enough, Chakraborti's research confirmed that this was the case.

But once again, his concerns were ignored. 'In 1994, I wrote and told the government of Bangladesh, the WHO [World Health Organization] and UNICEF that I had confirmed that high levels of arsenic was present in the groundwater of Bangladesh, but they ignored my letters,' he says.

The government of Bangladesh maintained its silence until the end of 1996. It only came clean after doctors at the Dhaka Community Hospital made it known that they had treated people suffering from arsenicosis as a result of drinking arsenic-contaminated water. 'Our findings were met with great opposition,' says Professor Quazi Quamruzzaman, the hospital's chairman. 'Organisations were all taking credit for the success of the tube well. When we revealed that we had cancer patients, everyone got very nervous. There was a lot of business involved: contracting, putting in wells. You can understand what goes on when there are millions of dollars involved--but our concern was for the millions of lives involved.'

The problems didn't end there. 'Initially, we thought that the problem was confined to the Ganges River Delta region, encompassing parts of West Bengal and Bangladesh,' says Chakraborti. 'Then, in 2002, following tests that we undertook in other areas, it became apparent that the groundwater was contaminated far beyond these boundaries. …