Bangladesh: Failing response to arsenic in drinking water

April 24, 2016


New research from Human Rights Watch shows that drinking water supplies in rural areas are widely contaminated with naturally occurring arsenic, affecting some 20 million people. An estimated 43,000 Bangladeshis die each year from arsenic-induced illnesses like cancer, cardiovascular disease and lung disease.

Arsenic in water is colorless, tasteless, and odorless. Exposure to high amounts, such as through accidents or deliberate poisoning, can result in seizures, coma, cardiovascular collapse, and death. Exposure to lower doses can also have severe health consequences, although these will take many years to develop. 

The Human Rights Watch report Nepotism and Neglect. The Failing Response to Arsenic in the Drinking Water of Bangladesh’s Rural Poor is based on field work in five villages in Bangladesh; a total of 134 interviews, including with victims, caretakers of government water points, government officials and staff of nongovernmental organizations; and the analysis of approximately 125,000 government water points installed between 2006 and 2012 (constituting approximately 85 percent of government water points installed during this period).

Neglect by health staff

The authors conclude that the official response to arsenic contamination of drinking water in Bangladesh’s rural villages is failing. Human Rights Watch was repeatedly told that government doctors or health care staff do not currently conduct arsenic screening in villages. If patients go to village health clinics with symptoms of arsenic exposure, they are told nothing can be done for them. If they go to health complexes in nearby towns, they are often told there are no longer even the multivitamins and ointment that they used to receive as treatment.


In a commentary published in the digital global news publication International Business Times, David Mepham (UK Director of HRW) wrote: “Our research found no sense of urgency on the part of the government in addressing this issue, little or no testing of water, no public information campaign to alert people to the dangers and no focus on arsenic-related illness in village health clinics. Worse still, we found widespread political interference in the locations of new water points.” Currently, members of parliament are allowed to choose the location of 50% of new government wells. As a result, wells are often denied to villages suffering arsenic contamination and allocated instead to areas near political allies and supporters, where water quality is already good. 

Mepham: “The problem of arsenic in Bangladesh’s shallow groundwater has been known for over 20 years, as has the technical response required to avoid it: digging deep wells that reach safe groundwater.”

Nepotism and Neglect. The Failing Response to Arsenic in the Drinking Water of Bangladesh’s Rural Poor. Human Rights Watch, April 2016

Too many Bangladeshis are left with no choice but to drink poisonous water and work in danger. David Mepham, International Business Times, 22 April 2016