Arsenic Risk Management : Need for a Comprehensive Strategy

Arsenic contamination of ground water has emerged as the latest scourge to haunt Bangladesh. Million upon million of people are now either already affected by it or about to be affected. They face the spectre of cancer, internal organ disorder, gangrene and death. More telling is that many of them, particularly young women now possibly live as social outcasts.

A lot of debate is now going on regarding the extent, causes and mitigation of arsenic toxicity. This is not the place to discuss any of these in any detail. Interested readers may wish to consult some of the literature and data that are available on the Internet, particularly the data made public by the British Geological Society. My objective here is to question some of the ways in which the arsenic toxicity is viewed by the authorities in Bangladesh and the manner in which an integrated strategy should be worked out.

There are basically two or rather three strands of thought and action which are going on now. The first one is the investigation on the spatial extent of As (abbreviation for arsenic) through the testing of the waters from hand tubewells and marking them with red and green colour to warn people (red for danger, green for safe) of the presence of As in water. The second is the innovations for a cheap, cost-effective method of purification of water for drinking. The third is popularisation of some of these two, i.e., testing and purification through some of the NGOs. These are all important elements of a strategy to eliminate the risk of arsenic toxicity. Unfortunately, they are not enough and are all being done on an ad hoc basis. There are major missing elements in the actions that are being taken or discussed. There are confusions regarding adaptation and mitigation of arsenic contamination and there is so far little by way of a strong political commitment expressed at the highest level of the Government. It is only the print media which has played a major role in raising awareness including the National Community Hospital and some of the NGOs. Below I try to provide briefly a unified approach towards developing a comprehensive arsenic risk management strategy (ARMS). A simple schematic diagram given at the end will help in understanding the points I am raising.

An arsenic risk management strategy in any given country involves two major issues. These are development and implementation of a mitigation strategy and the development and implementation of an adaptation strategy. The former entails putting a strategy in place and executing it so that arsenic toxicity no longer can occur or can occur only marginally among the population who are at present not at risk. An adaptation strategy, on the other hand, is aimed at the people who have already been exposed and affected by arsenic toxicity. Such a strategy, therefore, tries to minimise the adverse effects of the exposure. An adaptation strategy must have as its basic elements aspects of medical treatment, provision for purification of water for agricultural use and human consumption, social and economic rehabilitation of the affected people, ensuring supply of arsenic-free food and feed (for livestock) and very importantly a safe disposal mechanism for the waste arsenic left after purification of water. So far only the purification and to some extent medical treatment issues have received attention by the authorities concerned. Little has been discussed in relation to agricultural use or safe disposal of the concentrated As waste.

A common element in the development of the two types of strategy is the rigorous and scientific understanding of the natural processes involved in the occurrence and propagation of arsenic both within nature and the subsequent spread through food chains including drinking water into living organisms including human beings and subsequent biological changes due to arsenic toxicity. The starting point must be a critical review of whatever is known both within the country and world-wide. Indeed, arsenic toxicity is known to occur in various parts of the world including the USA. Within the country, several surveys have been conducted as indicated earlier and some are also on-going. The results of these such as the one conducted by the British Geological Society may be critically reviewed as a starting point for further scientific investigation.

Before getting into the issue of mitigation aspects of ARMS, it should be pointed out that arsenic toxicity is a problem of quality of ground water. Surface water in general is free of this problem. The development of a mitigation strategy has to look into two specific aspects. One of these relates to ensuring water for household use.

The issue of mitigation therefore must take into account the problem of finding alternative sources and technologies for supply of As-free water for both agriculture and drinking. This should involve analyses of the reasons for and consequent implications of substitution of surface water for ground water.

A major reason for the spread of hand tubewells had been to provide drinking water free of harmful pathogens. Returning to surface water sources should therefore consider water free of both As and such pathogens.

The issue of agriculture and food security is extremely important. So far we had been concentrating on the issue of drinking water. But we yet do not know for sure how As might get into the food chain through irrigation water. As may enter the human body both through food and feed for animals (the products of which are also consumed). Secondly, we do not as yet know what happens to productivity of agriculture in general and crops in particular if As-contaminated water is used for irrigation. If these are adversely affected, we will have in our hand a problem both of quantity and quality of food and feed. Food security is likely to be threatened and costly imports may be needed. These costs must be factored in while devising an adaptation and a mitigation strategy

Technological innovation, their cost effectiveness and popularisation therefore constitute core elements of an effective arsenic risk management strategy. Particularly, the issue of costs is extremely important. For cost effectiveness of the measures for the development and implementation of both the mitigation and adaptation strategies, one needs to be very clear about all the available alternative technical options.

A credible mitigation strategy, as the above discussion suggests, must find out the opportunity costs of the alternatives to use of ground water, which may form a significant part of the social costs. These may include the costs of alternative irrigation systems and of provision of drinking water free of harmful pathogens and probably also the costs of alternative sources of food for food security. Also, as a least-cost mitigation and adaptation strategies are needed, it appears that their economic and financial aspects probably shall have to be assessed through the modeling of the whole system.

Time sequence of measures may also have a significant influence on the effectiveness and costs of the strategies. These should therefore be integrated carefully within them.

Whatever be the final ARMS, these would need effective institutionalisation of the whole system. This is one area where Bangladesh has always been lagging. A bureaucracy-ridden system will not do. While in terms of planning and designing the elements of the strategies, the institutions must depend on solid scientific information and interpretation, in their implementation they must be totally field-oriented. Combining the two will of course be easier said than done. But too much and the lives of too many are at stake for this to be treated lightly.

The bare elements of a comprehensive strategy for arsenic risk management has been outlined above. These must be elaborated more fully, discussed and debated by the stakeholders, more so by those who are facing the menace everyday in their lives. Thus, a totally people-centred approach will be needed for understanding the problem on the ground and acting accordingly.

The motto of the World Environment day, 2000 is that it is "Time to Act". Let us wake up fully and be on a war-footing to win the coming battles for saving millions of people of Bangladesh from the silent killer that is stalking the land.

Core elements of ARMS

Prepared by

M. Asaduzzaman
Research Director
Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies

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