Millions of Bangladeshis still at risk of arsenic poisoning from government wells

Arsenic-tainted government wells are still poisoning an estimated 20 million people in Bangladesh, a number that is unchanged from ten years ago despite years of action to dig new wells at safer depths, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.

A woman collects contaminated water to be used on produce at a vegetable market from the Buriganga river in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. Left a womans hands show the effects of the water. Picture: Getty Images

The New York-based rights group blames nepotism and neglect by Bangladeshi officials, saying they’re deliberately having new wells dug in areas convenient for friends, family members and political supporters and allies, rather than in places where arsenic contamination is highest or large numbers of poor villagers are being exposed.

Government officials have refused requests for comment on the findings.

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Human Rights Watch based its report on a survey of about 125,000 government wells dug from 2006 to 2012 specifically to give villagers safer options, after an earlier survey of 5 million wells found millions exposed to water that exceeded Bangladesh’s arsenic contamination limit of 50 parts per billion. Bangladesh’s limit, which is the same as in neighbouring India, is far higher than the World Health Organisation’s recommended limit of 10 ppb.

“What we found was basically poor governance,” said Human Rights Watch senior researcher Richard Pearshouse, who authored the report. “There is no technical problem that can’t be solved if the political will is there. But what we see is that the government is using many of its valuable resources in areas where there is no need for deep tube wells from the government.”

Arsenic is a naturally occurring and toxic element found in the soil and groundwater of some areas of the world, including vast delta regions like Bangladesh and eastern India.

It kills about 45,000 Bangladeshis every year, and is known to be in the groundwater of at least 30 countries, including the US, Canada and China.

Scientists first discovered arsenic in Bangladesh’s groundwater in 1993, sounding alarm bells worldwide about a massive public health crisis.

The government took action and began testing many of the wells, painting them green if they were safe, or red if unsafe. International aid groups, including the World Bank and Unicef, also invested money to help the government dig more wells at safer depths.

For years, it was thought the problem had been solved. But scientists studying arsenic-tainted wells in Bangladesh began noticing a pattern in where the wells were placed.

“We had found that the deep wells the government had installed were clustered, with some villages being very much privileged and others not at all,” said geochemist Alexander Van Geen from Columbia University in New York.