Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Back to basics

Water, water, everywhere
nor any drop to drink.

S.T. Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

In S.T. Coleridge's famous poem a Mariner and his crew undergo a series of hardships, the most important being that they have no access to drinking water; this is no doubt a great irony considering that they are surrounded by water as they are cruising the ocean. In modern Bangladesh today, at least 20% of the population is in the very same position, lacking access to safe water. Equally ironically, if not more, Bangladesh suffers from deluges which claim the lives of hundreds every year and indirectly affect tens of thousands.

Vivid as the imagery may be in Coleridge's masterpiece, one will ultimately be reminded of the fact that the poem is a work of literature, not an account of real life. Sadly, this does not apply to the Bangladeshi who die in scores because there is "no drop to drink".

Tragedy in real life, it seems, strikes so hard that transcends human imagination. For, it is not the lack of access to our mundane "tap water" -which is so often mismanaged and wasted in our western countries- or to any decent-quality water the only calamity that plagues the Bangladeshi; it is the fact that many are exposed to water that is contaminated; water polluted with arsenic, a lethal chemical element that is perilous for humans.

And, there is more. Arsenic pollution is not a phenomenon of few weeks or months. This "drama" is on stage for the past 25 years.

"Mégacontamination", which roughly translates into "super contamination", is the word that Quebec daily "La Presse" uses in its first page this past Sunday, October 7th, to launch a survey of the catastrophe that plagues Bangladesh and the neighboring Indian province of Bengal. Without resorting to embellishments of any sort, the paper's correspondent in Rajarampur, Emilie Côté reports the facts: 35 million people are directly affected; 40,000 thousand cases of arsenic contamination have been reported to date. The journalist also states that the government knew for four years (1993-1997) about the presence of arsenic, but would not disclose it to the people. As information became available, she notes, uncertainty and insecurity prevailed: how were people supposed to know which source of water was contaminated and which not?

And this is just one way of looking into the problem. The repercussions here are multifold: environmental; economic, as the Bangladeshi rely heavily on agriculture; social, for the social stigma, the disruption of family patterns...

For what constitutes a major disaster in our modern times, the World Health Organization has published extensively on the matter, releasing numerous studies on the detrimental effects of arsenic. Promisingly, water testing spreads, and presumably the contamination rate decreases. Yet, the problem persists, and shall continue to ravage the Bangladeshis since it is known that arsenic kills "slowly"...

In "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" the calamity inflicted upon the sailors is a punishment for their hubris; rather than condemning the Mariner who killed the Albatross (the good omen/shield) for no reason, the sailors render his act righteous. What is the share of responsibility for the Bangladeshi? What could possibly justify the magnitude of such an (ongoing) tragedy? Given that arsenic pollution seems to result naturally, one could point to fate as being responsible. Such an answer however is simplistic and fails to convince. While it is true that the process of pollution could not have been fully thwarted, it is certain that its consequences would have been mitigated - had there been not for the four year "silence" period of the government or the low levels of public awareness or the lack of vital equipment for arsenic detection that were long absent or...



The article in "La Presse": Mégacontamination à l'arsenic au Bangladesh

World Health Organization reports Arsenic in drinking water

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