Taming an invisible menace: Protecting Myanmar's families from arsenic
Myanmar, April 2005
The village of Zin Pyun Gon, nestled in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwaddy Delta, appears idyllic at first glance. The trees hang with fruit, and young children play in the village’s dusty lanes, darting in and out of bamboo gateways.
For the past few years, however, an invisible hazard has been threatening the health of Zin Pyun Gon’s children and families. While the water that gives them life looks clean and tastes good, it actually contains arsenic, which over time can slowly cause a series of serious ailments.
Arsenic cannot be seen, tasted or smelled. This naturally-occurring element has only recently been discovered in many of the aquifers lying beneath the surface of Ayeyarwaddy’s meandering alluvial plains. As thousands of tube wells were drilled to access these water sources over the past few years, many people were unwittingly exposing themselves to this imperceptible danger.
When grandfather U Maung Mya first began noticing spots on his body, he never imagined it was being caused by the water he was drinking from his family’s well, unaware this was the first sign of a potentially serious problem.
He is one of two people in Zin Pyun Gon who have been diagnosed with arsenicosis.
“Fortunately, my family was not affected. Only I have suffered,” he says, cradling his granddaughter in his arms.
“Now we realize that we need to stop drinking water from the [contaminated] well. We’re only drinking water from the two new ponds – one provided by UNICEF and the other in the monastery – and the spots on my skin have gradually disappeared.”
That’s the good news about the arsenic threat. Most of the initial effects of arsenic poisoning can be reversed if people stop drinking water from contaminated sources.
“We’re addressing the problem early enough in the curve that the most serious consequences for children and affected communities can be avoided as long as we continue to take action,” says UNICEF Myanmar Water and Sanitation Chief Waldemar Pickardt.
UNICEF is ensuring that families have safer water alternatives by supporting the construction of new community drinking water systems in the most heavily affected areas.
UNICEF is ensuring that families have safer water alternatives by supporting the construction of new community drinking water systems in the most heavily affected areas.“The water is cleaner, and it’s more convenient too,” says a young mother who uses the new UNICEF-supported pumps to draw safe water for her family every day.
In addition to providing clean water systems, UNICEF has supported over 150,000 tests of water sources in high-risk areas such as Ayeyarwaddy, mapping every village and water source where the water is not safe. Contaminated wells are marked with a bright red band to warn families of the hidden danger, and the most-affected villages are targeted for immediate action.
Supporting village-based solutions
Safe drinking water alternatives for villages with contaminated water sources can include rainwater collection tanks, piping systems, clean drinking water ponds or water filters. Before new water systems are introduced, UNICEF and its counterparts consult with local community members to ensure they have input in identifying appropriate mitigation alternatives that meet their needs.
“We determine what system is best for communities together with the villagers, combining technical feasibility with social feasibility,” says UNICEF Water Officer Win Zin Oo.
UNICEF compliments the construction of clean water systems with community education activities, to ensure that families living in at-risk areas appreciate the importance of drinking water from safe sources. UNICEF compliments the construction of clean water systems with community education activities, to ensure that families living in at-risk areas appreciate the importance of drinking water from safe sources.
In the adjoining village of Taung Mann Kyar, nurse Daw Ruth has been working overtime to ensure that the children of her village stay safe and healthy.
“We’ve educated families about the danger, holding community education seminars, and encouraging them to use the safer alternative water sources provided by UNICEF.”
UNICEF is also directly reaching out to children, leaving no stone unturned to make sure they know how to protect themselves from arsenic.
“Where can you get safe water?” UNICEF Water Officer Win Zin Oo asks a group of children in Taung Mann Kyar.
“From the new ponds!” The children shout. “And from some new shallow wells,” adds one boy.
The headmaster of Taung Mann Kyar’s primary school says that all of the village’s children have learned about this threat.
“All of our young people know about the arsenic situation through school and community activities. In my school, pamphlets, worksheets and other teaching aids on health and hygiene provided by UNICEF have been used.”
Some of UNICEF’s greatest successes are the crises that never arise – and the healthy children who never fall ill. In Ayeyarwaddy and other parts of Myanmar, UNICEF and its partners continue working to ensure another silent success in the protection of children’s health.