Rural polygeneration may provide electricity and pure water in Bangladesh

Bangladesh has been afflicted by the worst human poisoning in history (WHO). Tens of millions of wells contain high levels of natural arsenic. The wells have been dug with international assistance during the last decades in order to use ground water as a source of drinking water instead of surface water. The wells were dug because the surface waters were severely poisoned by bacteria, algae and other microorganisms.

Since both detecting and removing arsenic are technically very complicated tasks, and because of the sheer magnitude of the problem, the Government of Bangladesh found it necessary to request assistance from the international community – ironically, often the same organizations that financed the wells.

As soon as the enormity of the plight was widely acknowledged, the World Bank, Unicef and several dozens of private and public aid organizations stepped in to help.

Today both the World Bank and Unicef, after having spent tens of millions of US$, have thrown in the towels and their final reports show that also many other of the still ongoing projects will meet with large problems and probably fail.

The basic reason for the failure is lack of afterthought and analysis. Just as some decades earlier the common cry was: “Surface water is contaminated – let’s dig wells!” (Once everyone was digging wells, it certainly seemed to be the right thing to do!) Now the cry was: “There is arsenic in the water – let’s remove it!” And soon hundreds of companies and scientist were proposing technologies for removing arsenic. Many projects were started and they all ran into difficulties.

There were several reasons for the difficulties.

  1. Arsenic has no colour and does not smell or taste. And there is no cheap detection method. Therefore, for any method proposed, the user must trust that the arsenic is really removed. For the methods that have been tested and proven to remove arsenic  in Bangladesh there is unfortunately no way for the user to check how efficient it is, if it works to start with, if it continues to work, how long the active ingredients lasts etc. For that reason, the user may be reluctant to pay for and/or take the trouble to use the method.
  1. Most of the people afflicted have limited cash income. That people with no cash income or limited cash income have difficulties in acquiring spare parts, service, fuel etc for equipment that they own is obvious. The methods that have been found to be efficient in removing arsenic usually have a fairly low capital cost and a comparatively higher running cost. Annual service and replacement may cost more than the initial equipment. So the cheap “five dollar solutions” sought after and often supported by the aid agencies have generally failed, if for no other, then this reason.
  1. Some of the proposed methods have limited removal efficiency. They may be tested to remove a certain percentage of arsenic and thus reduce contamination to below permitted levels provided that the initial concentration is not too high. An equipment like this may appear “good enough” or “better than nothing” for the Government or aid organisation. However, not being entirely sure if the equipment is good enough is not encouraging for the user – and as we said in (1), there is no way of finding out how good it really is.
  1. For a scientist, finding the perfect method for removing arsenic is a true accomplishment and several awards have been given for such accomplishments. However, for the user the question lingers, what else is there in the water. It is known from Gujarat that symptoms blamed on arsenic after systematic testing of the water were found out to be caused by high concentrations of fluoride instead. Luckily, the detailed testing was done before arsenic removal equipment was installed. Yet, even if tests verify arsenic, the user is likely to become more well-informed after the intervention. In the end the question will arise: what about fluoride, lead, cadmium, mercury, uranium, strontium….pesticides, insecticides and other chemicals!
  1. Since many of the methods introduced in Bangladesh rely on manual handling of the equipment there is a danger that the well water that is initially free from microorganisms can be contaminated in handling. After an acute bout of intestinal infection, the user will be reluctant to continue using the equipment. For many users the choice is anyway between the immediate risk of intestinal infections which is the curse of surface water and the long term probable outcome of arsenic poisoning. The choice is not entirely obvious.
  1. Another obvious complexity in the interventions has been the assumption that the objects of the interventions will be forever poor. The tendency has been to select methods that are as cheap as possible without contributing anything than just solving the problem as such. That is obviously a very inefficient use of resources. Sometimes acute interventions are needed, but charity without social development will just sustain poverty.
  1. As in all aid interventions the arsenic mitigation programs have been plagued by the inequity syndrome. An international intervention cannot just fly in. To have a chance of efficiency in its initiation it needs local intelligence and to have a lasting impact it must support local capacity building. Although directed towards the poorest segments of the population it has become increasingly apparent that much of the resources are appropriated by international and local experts and bureaucrats. This is of course detrimental to the marginalized people and their chances for long term social improvement.

Some of the prerequisites for a sustainable solution would therefore be:

  1. It must be evident for the users that the intervention removes arsenic.
  2. Recurring costs must be small.
  3. The intervention should remove all arsenic completely.
  4. The intervention should not leave other potential contaminants untreated.
  5. The technology used should not risk causing other contamination.
  6. The intervention should not only be a cost but part of building a more prosperous society.
  7. The intervention should not increase inequality.
The Foundation supports an intervention where the technology complies with criteria 1- 6 Criteria 7 will have to be met by the final project design.