Academic journal article Journal of Health Population and Nutrition

One Solution to the Arsenic Problem: A Return to Surface (Improved Dug) Wells

Academic journal article Journal of Health Population and Nutrition

One Solution to the Arsenic Problem: A Return to Surface (Improved Dug) Wells

Article excerpt


The arsenic problem in Bangladesh has been widely discussed. Beginning about 30 years ago, people in Bangladesh have been abstracting groundwater by sinking tubewells. The wells were cheap, and water seemed to be free of bacteria that cause cholera. Although this seemed like a miraculous solution to the nation's drinking-water problems, it produced its own very serious problems. About 30% of wells contained too much arsenic. The Government of Bangladesh was alerted to the ailments caused by arsenic as early as 1993, and physicians at the Dhaka Community Hospital (DCH) saw many victims in 1996. The ailments were not brought to the world's attention until the first (of eight) International Conference on Arsenic, held jointly by the DCH and Jadavpur University, Kolkata, West Bengal, India, in February 1998 (1). At the same time, the DCH, under a contract from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Bangladesh, and the United Nations Development Programme, rapidly assessed 500 highly-contaminated villages (2). The DCH and Jadavpur University also carried out detailed surveys in many other villages (3). At that time, several `obvious' conclusions were as follows: (a) a short-term solution might be acceptable if it was implemented on a wide scale at once; (b) a long-term sustainable and affordable solution should fit into a national water policy; (c) there is no reason for delay; short-term solutions should be implemented at once; and (d) a simple return to unsanitary surface waters is undesirable.

The proposals made immediately were to: (a) have a national survey of wells; (b) encourage switching of all the wells (use of a well without arsenic); (c) install temporary (household scale) arsenic-removal devices; and (d) use deep wells (deep enough to penetrate a clay layer). The implementation of these proposals has been slow and, seven years later, the short-term plan became long-term. As a consequence, many villages were still without any pure drinking-water. Switching of wells has been variable: some estimates are that only 30% of villagers switched wells. Scientists at the Columbia University found that the percentage was 60 in the area they studied, perhaps because they had an intense village-education programme (19). The arsenic-removal devices proved too hard for many villagers to use, and many of them were unsatisfactory and were, thus, abandoned (4).

Some scientists have cautioned against indiscriminate use of deep wells. Although arsenic contamination in deep layer is at present much smaller than arsenic contamination in ordinary tubewells at a depth of 40 meters, it is unclear whether it will always remain so (5). In Dhaka, continuous extraction of groundwater is non-rechargeable at the same rate of extraction. According to a report of the Water and Sewerage Authority (6), the underground water level of Dhaka city is going down continuously due to extraction of water.

In 2003, the Government of Bangladesh adopted a national water policy (7), giving a priority to the use of surface water among other options. These surface water options included: (a) encouraging a return to surface (dug) wells, but with strict adherence to the sanitary standards of the World Health Organization (WHO), (b) use of sand-filters to filter pond water or river water, and (c) storage of rainwater.

In all solutions, involvement of the local community is essential. The DCH is particularly suited to pilot projects at the local community level because each of their 40 local clinics can act as a focus for action. The Hospital chose the first of these surface-water solutions--use of dugwells--for the first demonstration facility in Pabna district. This report describes three phases of the work starting in 2000 until 2003, while also exploring an indication of further developments in another district since 2003. So far, the groups that have been actively studying and installing deep tubewells have been successful and have brought pure water to over a million people. …

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