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Bottled water, arsenic contamination and the poor of Bangladesh
Ameer H. Chowdhury, Institute for Environment and Development Studies-IEDS-Bangladesh
In Bangladesh access to fresh water by the poor has become difficult, especially in the rural area of the country. Recently, different types of bottled water, labelled 'mineral water' are selling in the local market. The price is high and beyond the reach of poor people. One liter of bottled water is selling within the range of Tk.22 and Tk.27, which is higher than the cost of Petrol and Octane. (One litre of Petrol is selling at Tk.21 and Octane is selling at Tk.25.)
Bottled water entered the market after the 1988 flood when hepatitis broke out widely and people began to regard tap water as unsafe. Now there is a common allegation that the different brands of bottled water marketed in the country are not as hygienically irreproachable as claimed.
The fact is that, with some exception, bottled water is tap water, plain and simple. The water is not even boiled and is found to contain coliform bacteria. This is a fraud which endangers the health of hundreds of thousands of people.
The majority of Bangladesh's population suffers from various types of economic and social deprivation. According to the Asian Development Bank and Government's Planning Commission (1995-96), 61.30% of the population in Bangladesh fall below the absolute poverty line while 40.20% fall below the hard-core poverty line. So, it is clear that poor people cannot buy drinking water.
Millions of rural people in Bangladesh are using hand pumps or tube-wells and surface water. About 95 percent of the population has access to tube-well water which is supposed be safe. But unfortunately, a large part of the area in Bangladesh is arsenic affected. WHO’s latest warning is that Bangladesh faces "the largest mass poisoning of a population in history because groundwater used for drinking has been contaminated with naturally occurring inorganic arsenic." Between 33 and 77 million of the country's 125 million-strong population are at a mortal danger of taking in a high level of arsenic through the water they drink and use everyday.
Due to a chemical process, the arsenic in the soil has become toxic. Water is contaminated at the depth of 20 to 80 meters or 100 meters. According to the Public Health and Engineering Department, 80 percent of the total tube-wells pump underground drinking water that is found to be contaminated with arsenic. The surface water is also not safe for drinking. In the slums around many cities, the cost of water accounts for a large part of household expenses.
Unfortunately, reactions of the government to this awesome health threat have been mainly limited to awareness building and very limited attempts to provide some safeguards. IEDS urged the government to declare a National Emergency, and to declare that Bangladeshi water is unfit for drinking purposes. Bangladesh must not waste time screening tube wells when it is more than concluded that the underground water is poisoned. It is time to focus on saving lives and providing safe drinking water to the people. We urge all Bangladeshi expatriates to 'adopt' their home villages and ensure changes. We urge all Bangladeshis to help in whatever way they can to stop this mass killing. We need alternative sources of drinking water. We need to know that no more people will die due to arsenic. We need to know that those affected are getting proper treatment, proper care and can live to see that days in front of them.
Ameer H. Chowdhury
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