Water, Water Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Drink
For almost 20 years, Professor Mohammad Alauddin has been working to solve the drinking water contamination problem in one of the world’s most populous and water-rich nations. What is the solution for Bangladesh — and what can we learn from it? Insights from this year’s trip to Bangladesh through the Wagner Expanding Your Horizons program.
Story by Laura Barlament / Photos by Habibul Haque/Drik
THE HOTEL GOLDEN DEER in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, is located on Gulshan Lake, in a district of embassies with manicured lawns, spacious homes behind guarded gates, and shiny, chauffeur-driven Mercedes Benzes.
Across Gulshan Lake from the hotel, a row of spindly shacks made of bamboo, tarp, and sheet metal occupies a narrow dirt bank. Laundry hangs on lines, and thick green vines hide some of the trash that flows down the bank into the grayish-green water, emerging farther out to make trash islands. Around the lake, it smells like a convocation of 100 overflowing New York City garbage trucks.
Nestled in India’s eastern armpit on the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh is a nation awash in water. Water-related disasters — floods, tsunamis, cyclones — frequently bring it into the international spotlight. Its main food crop is rice, one of the world’s most water-gobbling plants. Thanks to new irrigation systems, Bangladesh produces rice year-round.
So, it is an irony of cosmic proportions that Bangladesh’s water is slowly poisoning vast swaths of the population.
Earlier this year, Professor Mohammad Alauddin brought another group of students here, his sixth trip for the Wagner short-term study abroad program called Expanding Your Horizons. The goal: to gain insight into the water problem in Bangladesh, and also to gain a glimpse of the world’s future if we don’t take care of that precious resource we often take for granted — water.
THE LESSON STARTS at the Hotel Golden Deer, where we sip water from sealed plastic bottles, and each room has a private bath. But Dipankar Chakraborti, longtime director of the School of Environmental Studies at Jadavpur University in India, is here to talk about water realities for many more people in the world. “If you listen to him, you don’t have to listen to anybody,” says Alauddin, calling his guest an “elder brother” and “mentor.”
With a white shawl wrapped around his trim body and glasses precariously hooked into his long hair, Chakraborti launches into a PowerPoint with pictures of misery: two girls walking across parched earth, a six-hour journey, to fetch water in Rajasthan, India; naked children drinking water from a cattle trough in Sudan; another African child drinking cow’s urine. “You can’t believe this — and this is the truth,” he says. “And it will keep increasing, and increasing and increasing.”
Chakraborti speaks science from the heart — because he speaks from personal experience. He’s not afraid to shock, cajole, even offend to get his point across.
In 1988, Chakraborti tells us, he started his work at Jadavpur University in West Bengal, on the western border of Bangladesh. That’s when he became aware of nearby villagers who had a mysterious set of symptoms: blackened skin, dark lines on fingernails, black spots on the tongue, crusty lesions on their palms and the soles of their feet. They were suffering social exclusion, because people believed their strange looks were a contagion or a curse of the gods. They were losing their families and livelihoods, and dying of cancers of the skin, lungs, bladder, and kidney.
“As it turns out, there was a devil lurking in the depths: arsenic.”
From his previous studies, Chakraborti knew they were suffering the tell-tale signs of arsenicosis — chronic arsenic poisoning. He also suspected its source. Throughout the world, groundwater can contain naturally occurring arsenic at high enough levels to harm human health. It doesn’t take much: The World Health Organization prescribes a limit of 10 parts per billion (ppb) in drinking water — the equivalent of 10 drops in 500 barrels of water.
Beginning in the late 1950s in West Bengal, and in the 1970s in Bangladesh, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) funded projects to provide clean drinking water for the poor. Because water-borne diseases like diarrhea and cholera were rampant, tapping into shallow underground aquifers presented the perfect solution: hand-pumped “tube wells” allowed the people to access bacteria-free drinking water easily and cheaply.
At first, Chakraborti told us, the locals refused to drink from an underground source, calling it “devil’s water.” But in time the government’s promotions and the tube wells’ benefits allayed their fears. Tube well water reduced the incidence of diarrhea, which claimed the lives of so many children. It made water available to grow crops when the rains didn’t fall. It was cold and refreshing. The public attitude reversed. Having one’s own tube well became the pride of every family man. There are now 9 to 12 million tube wells in Bangladesh alone.
But as it turns out, there was a devil lurking in the depths: arsenic.
Colorless, odorless, and tasteless, it’s the perfect poison, as many an Agatha Christie reader knows. Washed down from the Himalayas, the massive mountain chain where Bangladesh’s rivers originate, it was hidden and harmless in shallow aquifers until the people started sticking tube wells 30 to 100 feet into the sediments of the flatlands. And slowly drinking death.
Chakraborti was not the first to demonstrate the dangers of arsenic-laden groundwater in poor populations, but he was perhaps the most persistent. In West Bengal and then in Bangladesh, he and his students walked from village to village to village, from well to well, documenting the symptoms and testing the water. They found the very worst of the problem in Bangladesh, which had the highest concentrations of arsenic contamination paired with the greatest population density: In a country about the size of New York State live about 160 million people, eight times New York’s population.
He notified government officials, but was frustrated at the lack of response. “They gave me the name of a madman who speaks rubbish,” he said. But he did not give up. As Barry Bearak wrote in the New York Times, “In 1994, he began sending letters to the Bangladeshi government, UNICEF and the World Health Organization — to no effect. Soon he was calling reporters, organizing conferences and generally becoming one of science’s great gadflies.”
Chakraborti’s efforts, though hard-won, have been successful. The Bangladeshi government and UNICEF started coming to grips with the arsenic problem in the late 1990s and working to mitigate it. But Chakraborti does not dwell on that. “No one’s denying it. It’s the truth,” he exclaims. “But this truth is like a fire!”
For many reasons, technical and economic and social and bureaucratic, the water problem is far from being solved, and the threat to the next generation of Bangladeshis looms. What frustrates Chakraborti the most is that water itself has not gained the respect it deserves. He points out that while the world population grows exponentially, the Earth’s water resources remain constant. No one can afford to waste or pollute water. Showing us a slide of a mushroom cloud, Chakraborti compares the coming water crisis to an atomic explosion in slow motion.
THE NEXT DAY, we pile into a van and get a good sense of what the phrase “population explosion” means. We are headed to the villages of Laksham and Sharasti, about 70 miles southeast of Dhaka. We will be in this van for the next five hours, dodging through streets and highways clogged with every form of transportation imaginable — other cars; women on foot, wrapped in saris and head scarves, carrying children and bags of rice; men wearing the wrap-around skirts known as lungis, pedaling rickshaws loaded with passengers, or flat-bed tricycles piled high with vegetables; tiny three-wheeled autorickshaws; cargo trucks brightly painted with birds and flowers; long-distance busses, scraped all along the sides as if they had been driven through narrow canyons, with passengers riding on the roof. Five hours — 70 miles. One way.
We cross the mighty Meghna River, which fans out into the largest river delta on Earth, the Ganges. Beneath the bridge, the river’s dirt banks are lined with long, narrow boats and flat-bed trucks, and bright green fields of rice lie between the river’s branches.
Sharasti and Laksham themselves, however, are not on any river. Tube wells must have seemed like a godsend to these people who lacked easy access to water. But their heavy use of the highly arsenic-contaminated well water, combined with poverty and poor nutrition, made the problem “a double whammy for them,” Alauddin says.
Those factors are why Columbia University researchers chose this area for a long-term study of nutritional supplements’ effectiveness in combating arsenicosis. There are about 7,000 patients in the study, which started in 2008. Alauddin helps to monitor the work.
Finally we come to a group of ramshackle houses, corrugated metal sides attached to bamboo frames, on a narrow dirt road. Minutes after we extract ourselves from the van, we are surrounded by a large crowd of curious onlookers.
The local staff of the Columbia project — including a young doctor named Shamim Ahmed, the project director, and a female field worker — assembles five women of a range of ages. Wrapped in rumpled cotton saris of purple, red, yellow, and green, they stand in a line before Professor Alauddin. They look submissive and shy as he gently questions them about their diet, water, and skin conditions. They are taking either a combination of selenium and vitamin E, or vitamin E alone, and are drinking clean water. They also receive treatment for any medical needs that arise while they are part of the study. Every two years, they give samples of their urine, toenails, and blood for arsenic testing.
One of the younger women opens the top of her bright yellow sari to reveal her collarbone area. Dark brown spots like moles mar her latte-colored skin — melanosis, the first stage of arsenicosis. The women say they eat meat about once a month. Nutrition is a critical factor in the arsenic threat: The human body is able to detoxify itself of harmful elements like arsenic, if it is able to replenish key nutrients, especially those found in green, leafy vegetables and white meat, milk, and eggs. Yet many villagers, especially in a very impoverished area like this, eat almost exclusively rice — they grow vegetables mostly for sale in the markets. And the vegetables they do eat are stewed, losing many nutrients.
“Villagers say, ‘Raw vegetables are not tasty, I cannot eat it,’” Alauddin tells us. “I wish I could live with them and eat with them and show them how to prepare the food.” Alauddin is part of another research group, also testing selenium supplements. “If these patients are treated in the early stage, if they are given selenium tablets, and we provide safe drinking water, it’s reversing skin lesions, symptoms of arsenicosis,” he says. “It’s a very promising and encouraging result.”
For others, these treatments are too late to reverse years of drinking arsenic-laden water.
A little farther down the road, we pass through a wooden gate into a courtyard surrounded by another a set of corrugated metal buildings. In the yard, a calf lows loudly, chickens peck the ground, and brightly colored laundry hangs on the line. Again, many curious faces appear.
A small man with a short, grizzled beard removes his shirt to show his chest. Dark spots cover his skin. Alauddin gently touches his palms, which look scabby, burned, and blistered — advanced symptoms known as keratosis — while speaking with him quietly. “From what I can tell he has been drinking water with arsenic at least 20 years,” Alauddin says. He has squamous cell carcinoma on his hands and feet, and is undergoing chemotherapy treatments through the Columbia program, says Dr. Ahmed. No longer able to farm, he ekes out a living by operating a tea stall in the local market.
Alauddin pulls a Toshiba laptop out of his bag and sets it up on an old wooden chair. He fills a tiny vial with water pumped from a nearby tube well and attaches it to the computer. Flies alight on his hands as he stares at the screen and murmurs numbers, while the computer graphs the water’s arsenic content. “This is quick and very sensitive,” Alauddin says. “Even if it’s 10 ppb, I can tell.”
An analytical chemist, Alauddin started testing tube well water for arsenic as early as 1993. Seeing the ineffectiveness of the government’s efforts, he has run his own lab in Dhaka, using mostly his own funds, since the late 1990s.
One of his big frustrations is the tube-well testing program sponsored by the Bangladesh government. Field workers were sent to the hardest-hit areas to test tube well water for arsenic. Wells they found unsafe were painted red, and safe wells were painted green.
However, the simple field kits they used were not sufficiently sensitive to detect trace amounts of the killer element. Professor Alauddin’s laboratory tests showed that the field workers’ results were correct only half of the time. “Fifty percent of the data can go either way, which means 50 percent of the data is bad,” he says. “Which 50 percent is good, that is the question.”
Meanwhile, of course, people need water. “Many of them, they don’t have any other option,” says Alauddin. “The pond water is contaminated with microorganisms, and the tube well water condemned with arsenic. They have no choice. After 10 to 12 years of painting the tube wells red and green, that paint is faded, and people are totally disregarding it and drinking.”
We walk back to the van along the rice fields, followed by a small pack of barefoot boys in oversized clothes. Men in hiked-up lungis bend to plant bright-green sprigs into the ankle-deep water. Where does this water come from? Tube wells. Years ago, the government helped farmers acquire irrigation systems to promote greater rice harvests and combat hunger. Yet, since they are using arsenic-laced water to irrigate, even these healthy-looking plants carry a slow death. In fact, the prevalence of arsenic-contaminated water makes it likely that the element is spreading throughout the food chain.
IN THIS LAND of plenteous water, it seems unbelievable that the people could be dying for lack of water — lack of safe water, that is. The science and technology to provide clean water exist. Walking down the road in Sharasti, we see a prime example: Behind a blue fence, there’s an impressive-looking set of shiny silver tanks. A big sign announces “Continuous Arsenic Removal Plant,” and in larger print, “DPHE / UNICEF Project.” DPHE is the Department of Public Health Engineering, the national agency in charge of drinking water supply in rural areas. It looks impressive — but, Alauddin says, it is non-functional. It costs too much to maintain, and the know-how doesn’t exist in the local community.
Social and cultural factors cannot be ignored in providing solutions. Alauddin is a big believer in systems that use more basic technology and are accepted, implemented, and operated by the users themselves. Like a river water purification system that he shows us the next day, in a village in the district of Munshiganj, 15 miles south of Dhaka. We take a ride down the smooth, calm river in a boat they call a “stroller,” something like a long canoe with a motor attached.
After about 25 minutes, we stop at a small settlement along the river. Clambering up the mud bank, we come to a concrete structure about one story tall, with a water tank above it. This river sand filtration system pumps water out of the river and filters it through layers of sand, brick chips, and gravel. Built nine years ago for $20,000 (funded by UNICEF and a local nonprofit, Dhaka Community Hospital), it provides sufficient daily drinking water for this community of about 500 people. A community board runs the system, and each family pays about 50 cents per month.
This village exemplifies a new attitude toward water in Bangladesh, Alauddin notes. “The mindset has been, ‘Water is free, it’s natural!’ That has changed,” he says. These people have come to understand that water is not to be taken for granted, but is a precious resource.
“This is very nice water,” Alauddin says, standing atop the structure surrounded by his students. “I have also checked it.” He accepts a cut-glass tumbler — evidently the town’s finest in honor of their special guests — and takes a deep drink.
LEARN MORE: See more photos and hear Krey Keller and Nicolette Faison talk about their experiences in Bangladesh.