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Community responds to arsenic ravage

© UNICEF/2012/Haque/Drik
Community planning sessions help implement good hygiene practices and ensure safe drinking water in Keari, Comilla, where arsenic contamination is a major threat.

By Julhas Alam

Keari, Comilla, 15 September 2012: In the remote farming village Keari, things are different now. The village is riddled with many challenges: poor road infrastructure, low literacy rate, poor sanitation facilities, but it had another formidable challenge -- lack of safe drinking water.

Like many other villages in Bangladesh, this area of a few thousand people in has arsenic contamination in its water usually pumped from shallow tube-wells. But for years, the villagers  had no choice but to drink this contaminated water, first unknowingly and then knowingly, given no other readily available alternatives. It was a very difficult choice for them even after being aware of the fact that drinking arsenic-contaminated water could cause deadly diseases, and in some cases death.

Many patients with arsenicosis (arsenic-induced cancer) live in this village and nearby areas. They have skin lesions and other health problems stemming from drinking arsenic-contaminated water for long. But now they want a solution, but that cannot be attained overnight. Still awareness among community and its quest for a viable solution has brought a wave of change.

Higher arsenic presence in drinking water technically means that it crosses the permissible limit of 50 microgramme/litre (50 parts per billion) determined by the Government of Bangladesh, while the World Health Organisation’s global standard is only 10 PPB.

“We knew this was dangerous but we had to drink it,” says Abul Bashar, a school teacher from Keari village of Monoharganj Upazila (sub-district) in Comilla. “But now we have alternatives.” Monoharganj was one of the worst affected sub-districts in terms of arsenic contamination with more than 98 per cent of the shallow tube wells poisoned by high levels of arsenic.       

Abul went door-to-door and talked to fellow villagers to let them know that there is a major threat to their lives because of drinking arsenic-contaminated water from tube-wells, which were once thought of as a viable source of safe drinking water.

With inspiration and guidance from the officials of Village Education Resource Centre (VERC), a national NGO, that has partnership with UNICEF, Abul formed a group to identify the problems they face. The arsenic contamination in drinking water topped the list of their concerns. 

“I formed a team with people from all classes. We prepared a ‘social map’ to classify the villagers using some yardsticks. We found that whether rich or poor, literate or illiterate, all had a common enemy, and that was arsenic contamination,” he says. “As we were all forced to drink arsenic-contaminated water, we thought we have to do something. We realized that building awareness should be a key target to move forward. We started thinking ourselves as a team, and as a community.”

© UNICEF/2012/Haque/Drik
Villagers in Keari, Comilla, are aware of the effects of arsenic contamination in the water and store arsenic free water for drinking purposes.

Awareness leads to action
Abul says they work under an “Environment Development Committee”, a group comprising villagers to identify and solve their own problems within their village.

“This is a great experience for us. We never thought of such approach earlier. We used to think if I am fine then everything is fine. But now, we are convinced that we have to stay well as a community,” Abul says.

He says they installed a ’deep tube well‘ in May this year, and since then, they have no crisis of safe drinking water. He says the installation of the deep tube well is seen as a major shift from the traditional source of drinking water such as shallow tube wells, which are less than 100 meters deep.

With the help of the government’s Department of Public Health Engineering supported by UNICEF, the community installed “multi-connections network” of water supply which connect the neighbourhoods with underground water lines. Given the poor road condition, it is often difficult for the villagers to collect water from a distant deep tube well before.

Community comes together
Like school teacher Abul, fellow villager 65-year-old Abdus Sattar says that he is happy like his neighbours to have a deep tube well in their locality.

“I am happy that my grandchildren are getting safe drinking water at last,” he says.

He said that they hold a weekly meeting in their community and discuss how they can now help others install similar safe water sources.

“People are much aware now. They want to live a better life,” he says. “This (installation of deep tube wells) is very much inspiring.”

Sharmin Sultana, a student, says she and her family are happy as they are getting safe drinking water now.

“We want to share this benefit with others. We have shown if we think and act as a community, we can live in a better environment,” she says.

She says not only arsenic issue they are also tackling hygiene and sanitation issues together.

“We are working as a community. We have to take care of ourselves. No one will come from outside and stay here for long to look after us”, added Sharmin.

According to an estimate, there are more than 8,000 villages in Bangladesh where 80 percent of tube wells are contaminated with arsenic. It is estimated that about 22 million people are exposed to high levels of arsenic in drinking water. World Health Organisation (WHO) has described it as “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history”. 

The arsenic problem is largely attributed to arsenic-rich materials in the country’s river system, deposited for thousands of years along with sand and gravels. 

UNICEF is playing a vital role in containing the menace by creating awareness and arranging alternative sources of drinking water. In many places, it has installed filters with locally available technology to ensure safe drinking water but it focuses on community participation in the fight against arsenic.

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