In a corner of a village located in the Jhikargachha Upazila (sub-district) of Jessore District, southwestern Bangladesh, there is a square concrete well. The arsenic contamination in Jessore District's groundwater is among the worst in the country. This well with a tap and "arsenic and iron removal device" is constructed to filter out arsenic in the groundwater with sand and gravel.
"My main job is to go to about 10 such wells in my district per day. I check to see that they are not malfunctioning and are being properly maintained, and then take appropriate actions as necessary. Sometimes I also explain the danger of arsenic to the nearby residents" speaks Mr. Abu Raihan. Embroidered into his jacket is a logo featuring a water pump. Mr. Raihan is an official "water monitor (pani poridoshokku)" employed by the local administrative unit (Union). That makes him a member of the "water police."
Why has the water police come to this village? The story goes back 20 years and involves steady efforts by JICA and an NGO to grapple with the arsenic issue.
Arsenic is a poison that has long been used in Japan to exterminate mice. It is also known for its part in a number of famous incidents, including arsenic poisoning from a mine in Toroku, Miyazaki Prefecture; a case of poisoning of Morinaga-brand milk products, and the poisoning of a pot of curry in Wakayama.
It was in the 1980s when it became know that groundwater throughout Asia is contaminated with arsenic. In Bangladesh, the existence of arsenic above international standards was confirmed for the first time in 1993. Of Bangladesh's total of 469 Upazilas, 270 are designated as contaminated areas. It is reported that more than 30 million people drink contaminated water.
So why is Bangladesh's groundwater contaminated with arsenic? Over the millennia, rocks of the Himalayas that contained arsenic eroded and accumulated in the downstream delta region. Arsenic is absorbed by and stored in iron in the ground and peat formed from dead plants. It is suspected that it began coming to the surface when humans began pumping up groundwater.
It is believed that the rapid spread of shallow wells that draw up water from relatively shallow depths has played a particularly large role here. Symptoms of poisoning are seen among residents of the contaminated areas. They include keratosis, which is marked by hardening of areas of the skin, and pigment deposition, in which spots appear. If the poisoning worsens, bronchitis and liver damage can occur, and it is known that some people suffer from cancer. It is said that more than 50,000 people have been poisoned.
Given these circumstances, one NGO called the Asia Arsenic Network (AAN) wondered if there was a way that Japan's experience could be utilized to combat arsenic contamination in Asia. AAN was established in 1994. It was formed around a "group for protecting the victims of the Toroku and Matsuo mine contamination" that has supported arsenic poisoning sufferers following the Toroku incident. Mr. Kazuyuki Kawahara, who was AAN's first executive director and currently serves as a member of its board, visited Samta Village in Sharsha Upazila of southwestern Bangladesh in 1996 to conduct a study.
Mr. Kawahara's team met many poisoning patients in the area. It also embarked on a full-scale local study and executed countermeasures. These activities resulted in the team's suggesting a "mobile arsenic center"-type approach in which experts in establishing alternative water sources, education, medical support, and water quality testing would form a single group and travel from village to village. Around the same time, AAN joined hands with JICA, which had been conducting a study to uncover possibilities for providing support in this field. This led to the start of a development partner project called the "Mobile Arsenic Center Project for Solving the Problem of Drinking Water from Arsenious Hot Springs" in Sharsha Upazila, Jessore District, in 2002.
Thus began a long joint effort by Japan, Bangladesh, JICA, and an NGO.
According to Mr. Kawahara, during the Mobile Arsenic Center project's two-year period that began in 2002, 120,000 people, or more than one-third of the population of Sharsha Upazila, participated in the project's awareness raising activities. Moreover, some 63 water users' associations were formed in 45 villages with severe contamination, and alternative water sources that employed various filter types were installed for household and community use. However, although the project had achieved a certain amount of success, this did not mean that the countermeasures had ended.
There is a well in Jessore District that, if examined closely, reveals a plate that says "pond sand filter." It was one of the alternative water sources that JICA installed. While it is true that there was storage pond nearby, this well was unused and left in a damaged condition.
Mr. Kawahara says, "We realized that simply building a well and tank is not enough. It's difficult to just leave things to the intentions of the users. We understood clearly that we must build a framework within the local government and develop a maintenance and management system."
Consequently AAN and JICA joined forces to implement a sustainable arsenic mitigation project (2005 to 2008) and other initiatives. These undertakings focused on stimulating the activities of an arsenic countermeasures committee that was established at the local government level, forming users' associations, and conducting education activities.
Then, in 2012, they came up with the idea of the above-mentioned "water police." Under the plan, "water-police" who monitors the wells would be hired by the Union and based in the Union's office. Even so, their salaries would be paid by people who actually benefit from the wells; in other words, they would be collected from well users. The fee for each household was set at 10 taka (roughly 15 yen) per month. However, there was opposition at the beginning and some claimed that it was impossible to expect people who don't even pay taxes to pay such a fee.
Indeed, collecting fees was a challenge initially. However, in Jhikargachha Upazila, Jessore District, which introduced the water monitoring on a trial basis, 8 out of the 11 Unions employed water police. Of these, 6 Unions were able to collect fees totaling 8,000 taka or more from users, to be paid to the water police's salaries.
"One difficult aspect of our arsenic education activities is that people do not realize the danger unless someone close to them shows actual symptoms," says Mr. Kawahara. When people ingest small amounts of arsenic, they undergo a process called "slow poisoning" whereby chronic symptoms appear slowly. This hinders efforts to get people to quickly grasp the risks.
Nonetheless, through their persistent dealings with residents, project personnel hit upon a useful idea. As Mr. Kawahara explains, "Many residents complained that the contaminated water made their stomachs swell, tasted of iron, and caused heartburn. So we said, ‘Let's drink better tasting water.' The opportunity to drink not only safe water but also good-tasting water every day—I think this is what appealed to many residents."
The water police's activities is the result of accurately grasping what residents wanted and coming up with the catchphrase "delicious water." Additionally, the residents are given water police's contact information and can call them for service, day or night, if they find something wrong with their water. They are also improving the water police's skills so that they can deal with problems precisely. Their efforts are proving that, if services are properly delivered, residents will pay their fees.
Japan's support for arsenic countermeasures in Bangladesh, which began with AAN's first study in 1996, is about to reach its 20th year. To achieve greater dissemination of arsenic countermeasures, AAN and JICA launched a project with a new orientation in 2013. The "Project on Non-Communicable Diseases Risk Reduction" is an undertaking aimed at comprehensive countermeasures and prevention of arsenic poisoning symptoms among so-called non-communicable diseases (NCD), which include cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases, and chronic diseases.
According to Mr. Mamoru Hanzawa of AAN, who was sent to Bangladesh to lead this project, once arsenic patients suffer from poor health, they never return to a healthy state. They become unable to work, lose their income, and have difficulty getting by. For this reason the project focuses on prevention and executes activities at three levels: 1) guidance for better living and health education, 2) early detection and treatment of disease, and 3) support for patients with serious conditions.
An example of the project's approach is living improvement through promotion of household gardens. It is said that people in rural areas eat few vegetables and on occasion eat nothing more than salted rice. Given this, the project promotes the growing of okra, Indian spinach, and other crops in fields planted on the land of residents' homes. This activity is being broadened through a number of approaches, including training on vegetable growing led by agricultural extension workers.
Through medical checkups and living improvement activities, residents pay more attention to their health, and as a result they become more interested in water that is not only "delicious" but also "safe." Mr. Hanzawa says, "We can see that people's willingness to conduct water quality tests and properly maintain wells is higher than before."
After existing quietly underground for tens of thousands of years, arsenic is brought to the surface through groundwater. Mr. Kawahara, a man who has grappled with arsenic in Miyazaki since the 1970s, says, "Arsenic appeared in our lives to tell us something. It's my job to listen." Incorporated into the arsenic countermeasures being applied in Bangladesh are the feelings of those who suffered from the Toroku mine contamination. As long-term initiatives, they will continue into the future.
An alternative water source well with filtering equipment. Residents use the well because "the water doesn't cause heartburn." (At Jhikargachha Upazila, Jessore District)
Mr. Abu Raihan, a "water policeman" wearing a uniform embroidered with a hand pump logo. "I'm proud to work for the community," he says. (At Jhikargachha Upazila, Jessore District)
Mr. Kazuyuki Kawahara, opening the tap on an alternative water source well with filtering equipment. Installed in 2003, this was the first such well built by AAN. The well's manager, Mr. Lutfoel Rahaman, says, "More than ten of my relatives and colleagues died. I believe the cause was arsenic. Because I have seen the actual harm that arsenic causes, I keenly desire to drink water I know is safe." (At Chaugachha Upazila, Jessore District)
One of the biggest challenges confronting alterative water supply wells is the issue of maintenance and management. Based on an idea by Mr. Kinuyo Sawahashi (at right in the photo), a member of JICA's Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers scheme, simple instructions on daily, weekly, and twice-yearly maintenance were affixed to wells. (At Chaugachha Upazila, Jessore District)
An "Apon pump" that was improved to draw up water even during dry season's low water period. The pump is so light that even a child can operate it. Installation of these pumps is expanding throughout the project area. (At Jhikargachha Upazila, Jessore District)