Bangladesh is a low-lying nation with shallow and easily accessible groundwater reserves. In recent years, technological advances have sparked the proliferation of individual household tube wells that allow some 95 percent of all rural Bangladeshis to tap directly into fresh groundwater supplies. These sources are free of many pathogens and other contaminants found in surface waters.
Tube wells were seen as a boon for the nation’s clean water supply system, which, in fact, they were; but recent years have revealed a disturbing problem.
More than one in five tube wells, nearly 1.5 million in all, are contaminated by unacceptable levels of naturally occurring arsenic. The presence of this often slow-acting poison became apparent in the early 1990s when victims of arsenicosis began to appear in Bangladeshi hospitals.
Prolonged exposure to high arsenic levels can cause cancers of the skin, liver, and lungs, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Some estimates suggest that more than 35 million of the nation’s 126 million people drink well water with arsenic levels that are far above those considered acceptable for human health.
Arsenic levels can only be determined by a system of testing and monitoring that reveals which water sources are safe. When it is present, it may be mitigated by household purification systems in those homes where such devices are affordable.
In many cases, however, the best bet is simply to avoid consuming arsenic-laden water. Contamination of wells is intermittent, even within communities, so sharing clean wells is one viable option. Unfortunately, this system is far less convenient for users and may be seen as a reduction in water supply status in households accustomed to personal wells and unconvinced of arsenic’s dangers.
Surveys show that many Bangladeshis are willing to pay for expanded piped water service that could match the convenience of their individual tube wells. However, they may be less willing to give up those convenient wells due to arsenic concerns without comparable household service.
Currently, piped water sources reach only one in three Bangladeshis, and few of them are rural dwellers. The government, with international support, has taken the initiative to expand these piped water sources, to develop new and cleaner groundwater sources, and to build more treatment facilities capable of mitigating water quality problems.