Back in the summer of 1997 while working for a small newspaper focusing on UN development issues, I traveled to Bangladesh to see how far this often overlooked country tucked away in a corner between India and China had fared since its independence 25 years ago. At the time the only stories which came out of this part of Southeast Asia and made international headlines were of devastating cyclones and floods or rebel clashes. When I arrived there, I saw a different story.
Bangladesh was being transformed because of its people, leadership and international cooperation. There was a sense that things were about to change for this country which for years flirted with the lowest rungs of the development ladder. Long colorful throngs of sari-clad women walked in the early morning to textile factories in Dhaka. Success stories of the Grameen Bank led by Muhammad Yunus (who will be speaking with Jeff Sachs) and the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee became legendary and demonstrated to the world the power of microfinance. Clearly the country was changing for the better.
However there was something sinister seeping deep underground between the rocks. It was arsenic and it was poisoning the water coming from the wells. Back in the 70s in response to the growing disease burden caused by chronic floods and runoff water, a number of international agencies and private citizens began installing millions of inexpensive tubewells to tap the cleaner water beneath the surface. It was a mammoth public health success. Today, unfortunately, tens of millions of Bangladeshis are paying the price for good intentions.
Arsenicosis is a peculiar disease. It is a slow death because it can take years to settle in. And because of its creeping nature, people don’t pay too much attention to it — until it’s too late. When I visited Bangladesh, the telltale signs of discoloration and sores on hands and feet where everywhere in rural villages. They knew it came from the water, but it was a better alternative to drinking the polluted brown water on the ground.
Here today in 2009, it’s encouraging to see the international response and research being led by the Earth Institute, Columbia University to solving the arsenic problem in Bangladesh and in other parts of the world. Arsenic has been found even in water right in our backyard in Rockland county. A recent paper produced by Columbia scientists is getting closer to solving the mystery of where the arsenic is coming from and paving the way to stopping it.
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