Each year, 43,000 Bangladeshis die as a result of drinking arsenic-contaminated water, a figure which has not significantly altered since steps were taken to clean up Bangladesh's water supply at the turn of the century. It is estimated that up to 5 million Bangladeshi children born between 2000 and 2030 could die after being exposed to arsenic in their water supply.
Corruption and international neglect are to blame for the fact 20 million people in Bangladesh are still drinking water contaminated with arsenic, more than a decade after the extent of the problem was made clear, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW). There is a high level of naturally occurring arsenic in Bangladeshi groundwater, as there is across South Asia. This does not normally affect the quality of water in large cities such as the capital, Dhaka, where water is drawn up from untainted aquifers deep in the ground, or purified before distribution. But in rural areas, around 10 million hand pumps still draw up potentially contaminated groundwater. The poison can cause cancers of the skin, liver kidney, bladder and lungs, as well as cardiovascular and lung disease.
The World Health Organisation has called the government's failure to reduce the level of naturally occuring arsenic in its water "the largest mass poisoning of a population in history". The HRW survey said there was "little or no evidence of concerted efforts" to improve the situation for rural villagers. The problem is compounded by international indifference and the failure of NGOs to address the issue, according to the report. They suggest that NGOs such as UNICEF have blindly provided funding to government clean-water initiatives, despite evidence that the government's water testing methods "barely function", and that the government expends "considerable resources in areas where the risk of arsenic contamination is relatively low".
"Politicians undermine the allocation of new government water points by diverting these life-saving public goods to their political supporters and allies," the HRW report claimed. In one recent project, 50 per cent of pumps were allegedly constructed in locations intended to benefit government officials.