Skip to main content


Water torture

Government mismanagement leads to a drinking-water crisis that missionaries are eager to relieve

in Gopalganj-

"Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink ..."

Nowhere is the ironic predicament of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" more apparent, or tragic, than in Bangladesh, a flood plain barely bigger than Arkansas packed with 124 million people. Water flows abundantly from the rivers, the ocean, the ground, and the sky. But drink at your own risk: Much of it contains microscopic killers. Just ask O.D. Boyd, a retired Baptist minister from Kentucky. Mr. Boyd suspiciously eyes a test tube of well water in Gopalganj, a district in southern Bangladesh. The water looks clean and clear, but looks can be deceiving. "I've got one over there that's as poisonous as a rattlesnake," he says, pointing to a vial filled with dark liquid. It looked pure, too, until Mr. Boyd analyzed it with a test kit. The analysis showed toxic levels of bacteria-and of arsenic, a grim new threat in the groundwater of Bangladesh and its Indian neighbor, West Bengal. That's crucial information for the people of Bangladesh, millions of whom depend on simple tube wells sunk into the soil for drinking water. Cheap and easy to install in the sandy soil of low-lying countries like Bangladesh, tube wells have been a popular choice for Third World development workers in search of clean water sources. Over several decades, Southern Baptist mission workers-along with the Bangladesh government, UNICEF, and numerous other aid agencies-sank hundreds of tube wells throughout Bangladesh. They believed tube wells were the answer to the country's unsafe drinking-water crisis. As many as 4 million of the wells now dot the landscape, within reach of 97 percent of the population. Bangladeshis, mostly rural farm workers and village dwellers, have few alternatives other than polluted ponds and river water. Contaminated rivers and ponds pose what many development experts consider the single greatest threat to human health. But the recent discovery of naturally occurring arsenic in water drawn from many tube wells creates a Hobson's choice for millions: quick death from diarrhea and dysentery, which kill more than 100,000 Bangladeshis each year, or slow death from arsenic-induced poisoning. "We want to test as many wells as we can and talk with the government about what to do," says missionary James Young. "A big part of our development work in helping this country has been the tube well. When we started putting them down about 20 years ago, we had no idea there was arsenic. We thought we were beginning to solve the water problem in Bangladesh." Monsoon rains, seasonal tides from the Bay of Bengal, and melting Himalayan snows from the north invade Bangladesh's rivers every year. Runaway deforestation of Asia's highlands has only increased the flow of water and silt to low-lying Bangladesh and West Bengal-piling onto silt in rivers left uncleared from previous floods. The water has nowhere to go but over the riverbanks. Between July and September last year, the nation's worst-ever flooding inundated the land, submerging thousands of the wells in bacteria-laden water as it covered two-thirds of the country. "This year it all came together, and it was bad," says Mr. Young, a Southern Baptist missionary. "I've never seen so much water." Water is the timeless blessing and curse of Bangladesh, the world's largest river delta. Countless capillaries of water crisscross it, all converging into the mammoth river system that flows through the center of the country. When the annual floods come, as they did with vengeance last summer, Bangladeshis live-or die-in the water until it goes down. This year's slow-rising water didn't sweep away thousands of people as past floods and cyclones have done. About 1,500 people died as a direct result of flooding, a tiny toll by Bangladesh standards. But over the course of two months, the flood drowned almost an entire rice crop and prevented the planting of another. It left up to 30 million people homeless, jobless, and hungry. It destroyed an estimated 10,000 miles of roads, 6,000 bridges, and 10 percent of the nation's gross national product. And it contaminated up to 50,000 water wells with disease-causing bacteria. The contamination can be eliminated-if it can be identified. That's where the Kentucky volunteers came in. Mr. Boyd and four other Kentucky volunteers went to Bangladesh last October to assist missionaries in testing hundreds of tube wells for bacteria and arsenic. They also trained local Christians and Bangladesh government workers in how to carry out the tests. Mr. Boyd and partner Larry Kemp headed south to Gopalganj district, while engineer Jim Outland took a rugged solo journey to Sylhet in the far northeast. Later he joined up with volunteers Sam Watkins and Paul Filiatreau, businessmen from London, Ky., who worked at a breakneck pace in the northwest. "I think in the first three days we checked 181 wells," says Mr. Filiatreau. "One day we drove for four hours, rode a flatbed rickshaw for an hour, walked eight or 10 miles in one direction to test a well, then turned around and tested wells in villages on the way back." Up to 70 percent of the wells they tested contained significant levels of health-threatening bacteria. How much bacteria was deposited by the flood water and how much was already there is a question of vital interest to missionaries, other aid workers, and the Bangladesh government. "Evidently most tube wells anywhere from 50 to 250 feet deep are affected with bacteria," says missionary R.T. Buckley. "What does that mean? If it's the kind of bacteria that is harmful, then the whole country is faced with a catastrophic situation-bad drinking water even though it looks good." Back home in Kentucky, Mr. Outland, who works for Ag Spray Equipment in Hopkinsville, is experimenting with an idea for a simple, cheap water-purification unit that can be mass-produced and attached to tube wells throughout Bangladesh. If it works, many lives might be saved. Experts say there is ample blame for overlooking the arsenic situation to go around. "These wells were introduced into the ground water in good faith and they've saved countless lives," said Kazi Matin Ahmed, a Bangladeshi scientist who is studying the arsenic situation for the British Geological Survey. "But, saying that, you could have rightly expected UNICEF to have known a lot sooner about the arsenic.... At the very least, someone must be blamed for bad management of such a vast system of water supply." UNICEF officials in Dhaka told The New York Times that the organization is looking for other ways to supply water, even though the government continues to install tube wells. "We are wedded to safe water, not tube wells, but at this time tube wells remain a good, affordable idea and our program will go on," said Shahida Azfar, the organization's chief representative in Bangladesh. In the meantime, the presence of arsenic in many wells presents a long-term challenge only matched by the short-term problem: How do farmers survive until the next harvest? "A major portion of two rice crops has been totally lost," Mr. Buckley explains. "The next rice harvest will be affected by the amount of silt deposited in farm areas by the floods. A tremendous number of people are without jobs. There's not going to be any need for day laborers to cultivate land until March and April." During his three decades in Bangladesh, Mr. Buckley has seen massive aid, and millions killed by floods, cyclones, hunger, and war. He warns, "you've got the makings of a potential humanitarian crisis that this country has never seen before. Bangladesh is in for a long, hard winter. The international community responds to a crisis like this for maybe two to three months. When the waters go down, all they see is traffic in the cities moving well. But village people are far removed from city scenes." That's why missionaries are focusing their relief efforts on rural areas at the request of government officials. U.S. Christians have sent more than $1 million in funds and supplies for aid to thousands of families, installation of sanitary latrines, and distribution of medicine and other projects; they have also donated two water purification units that can provide clean water for up to 30,000 people a day. Compared to the staggering needs, these efforts are "a drop in the bucket," Mr. Buckley admits. "But at least it's a drop and at least it's in the bucket."

-Mr. Bridges writes for Baptist Press' international bureau.