Millions still drinking arsenic-laced water in Bangladesh

Human Rights Watch has attacked Bangladesh’s government for its perceived failure to protect its citizens

Twenty years after initially coming to international attention, an estimated 20 million people in Bangladesh–mostly the rural poor–still drink water contaminated with arsenic that is above the national standard, says a new report from Human Rights Watch.

Nepotism and Neglect: The Failing Response to Arsenic in the Drinking Water of Bangladesh’s Rural Poor attacks Bangladesh’s government over how it has largely ignored the impact of exposure to arsenic on people’s health.

“Bangladesh isn’t taking basic, obvious steps to get arsenic out of the drinking water of millions of its rural poor,” said Richard Pearshouse, Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The government acts as though the problem has been mostly solved, but unless the government and Bangladesh’s international donors do more, millions of Bangladeshis will die from preventable arsenic-related diseases.”

Human Rights Watch analysed data regarding approximately 125,000 government water points installed between 2006 and 2012. It was found that water from hand-pumped, mostly shallow, tube wells across large areas of rural Bangladesh contains arsenic. According to Human Rights Watch, although deep wells can often reach groundwater of better quality, government programmes to install new wells don’t make it a priority to install them in areas where the risk of arsenic contamination is relatively high.

“Contaminated government tube wells urgently need to be replaced or rehabilitated, before people lose what little faith they have left in the government’s commitment to provide safe water,” added Pearshouse.

Under the national well screening (the bulk of which occurred from 2000 to 2003) some 5 million wells across the country were tested with field kits and the pumps painted red or green according to whether they were above (red) or below (green) the national standard. The screening found that wells of an estimated 20 million people yielded water with arsenic above 50 micrograms per litre (the national standard).

Human Rights Watch says that since 2006 the urgency of such efforts has dissipated. It cites a nationwide study of drinking water quality in 2013 that found a similar result to the earlier screening, a rate of contamination that corresponds to some 20 million people exposed to arsenic at unsafe levels.