Arsenic and Iron Contamination in Groundwater of Bangladesh

Bipasha Dutta

13 February, 2019 12:00 AM printer

I in every 9 people in the world do not have access to safe water. The case is even worse for children. One in every 5 deaths of under-five children is caused by waterborne diseases. In the developing countries, 80 per cent of the diseases are associated with limited access to safe water and proper sanitation facilities (the water project, 2016). The condition is similar for Bangladesh as well.

Though, Bangladesh made significant improvement in access to improved water sources, there is a long way to go for ensuring access to safe water for most of the people. Regarding the quality of drinking water Bangladesh ranked at the 86th position among 142 countries. This was found that both surface and groundwater sources of drinking water were polluted with coliforms, harmful metals and pesticides (Arefin and Mallik, 2017). This rank is supported by the fact that two out of every five households still drink water from contaminated water sources (UNICEF, 2016). With having other harmful impacts, over 7,000 children under five years old die annually from poor water, sanitation and hygiene practice in Bangladesh (WaterAid, 2015).

Groundwater can be polluted in different ways for having presence of natural and human induced chemicals. Regarding groundwater pollution, Bangladesh has been facing a threat to Arsenic contamination since 1993 when Arsenic was first identified in tube wells.

The acceptable rate of arsenic in water is 0.01 (milligram/liter); however for Bangladesh the range is 0.05 milligram/litre (source: WHO) whereas, 27 per cent tube wells in Bangladesh were contaminated with level above 0.05 (The International Water Association). Currently, extreme arsenic has been found in 61 district of Bangladesh out of 64. The rate of contamination varies from 1 per cent to 90 per cent, where the average rate is 29 per cent (Department of Public Health and Engineering).

Using arsenic contaminated water for cooking and drinking usually affect lungs, skin, kidneys, and liver. Also, association between high inorganic arsenic exposure and spontaneous abortion, stillbirth and low birth weight was found in the research (Milton et al, 2017). A study reveals that in 15 per cent villages of Bangladesh, 80 per cent of the shallow tube wells which were contaminated with arsenic were used for household activities like cooking and drinking (Ahmed et al, 2018). Thus, thousands of people are highly vulnerable to health hazards created by arsenic contamination.

With arsenic, iron contamination in groundwater is another source of water pollution for Bangladesh. For iron, the acceptable range is 0.30 (milligrams per litre). Consuming excessive iron may create fatigue, weight loss, joint pain and eventually may effect on liver, heart and lead to pancreatic damage and diabetes.

Limited access to safe water impact women more unfavourably in comparison to men as two thirds of the households rely on women for collecting water where there is no water source at home. A survey found that 89.6 per cent women in Bangladesh are responsible for collecting water for their households where only 4.6 per cent male do the job (UNICEF, 2013). Access to safe water is vital for women and children during and after pregnancy. Carrying heavy vessels for a long time to fetch water can be detrimental to the health of pregnant women and children.

In such a backdrop, with the goal of improving ‘Public Health Situation in Gowainghat’; World Vision Bangladesh and World Vision Japan implemented “community Based WASH Improvement Project” at Gowainghat from 2016 to 2019.

In Gowainghat Upazila of Sylhet, 38 per cent of households used to drink water from unprotected sources which were contaminated by arsenic and iron. Moreover, 16.1 per cent under 5 children were found to have symptom of diarrhoea. (Baseline, 2016).

One of the initiatives among this project was to install 245 tube-wells. However, most of the wells were contaminated by Arsenic and Iron where 27 tube-wells had Iron above 0.90 (milligrams per litre). To overcome these challenge a low cost community driven solution was inevitable. To do that, total 60 Dwellers from two villages (Labu villages and Punnanagar villages where iron level was high) were capacitated to develop the Arsenic Iron Removal Plant at home. Mostly women took the lead role in this initiative. For the low cost and user friendly technology, the dwellers built the filter with their own fund (BDT 400/4.8 USD). After using the filter, the arsenic level and iron level is instantly reduced from 7.5-15mg to 0.5-1 mg and from 13 mg to .5 mg respectively in these two villages. Even, the change in colour of water was so prominent that the dwellers from adjacent villages also started to replicate the practice.

Women in hilly area like Jaflong usually walk for 3-4 hours every day for collecting water. For fulfilling the need of their families, they had to fetch water twice or thrice a day. This practice at one hand was harmful for their health, on the other hand might increases their insecurity as sometimes they go to fetch water at night in these hilly area. Moreover, tube-well could not be installed in these hilly areas. To overcome this challenge, 10 dug-wells were installed by the project.

Fate of the women of Kalinagar village in Purba Jaflong Union changed after the installation of the dug well. They had to steal water at night in the hilly areas from a dug-well that was 500 meters away from this village and it took more than half an hour. After installation of a dug well 40 household had access to safe water and health hazard and insecurity of 40 women reduced.

Research shows that $1 investment in water and sanitation brings economic return of $3 to $34 (WHO, 2016). Thus, innovative initiative like community driven Arsenic Iron Removal Plant and development of Dug well in the dug area should be promoted for ensuring safe access to water for all and contributing in the target of goal 6 of SDG- “achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all”


The writer is the National Coordinator - Knowledge Management, Research and Innovation, World Vision Bangladesh