People: Quenching a Killer Thirst

Arsenic is a ‘silent killer’ not only because it is tasteless, odourless and colourless, but also because so few people know that right now it is killing millions. But there is hope.

Kazi was so proud. He had finally saved up enough money to install a well in his courtyard. His wife would no longer have to travel long distances to get safe water for their family. Having their own well meant less work and more peace of mind.

Unfortunately, Kazi’s joy turned to despair when his family started getting sick because their ‘safe’ water was full of arsenic.

It’s an all-too-familiar story for people in Bangladesh, one made even more heartbreaking by the fact that it is a man-made tragedy.

Thirty years ago so many people were dying from bacteria in the country’s pond and river water that the Bangladesh government and international aid agencies rushed to sink thousands of pump tubewells to non-infected levels. The solution seemed to work.

But from around 1987, people were discovered suffering from skin sores, fatigue, gangrene and cancer. It turned out many of the “safe” wells were actually tapping water highly contaminated with arsenic, known as the ‘King of Poisons’. The country was, and still is, gradually being poisoned to death.

James Pender, a missionary supported in part by CMS, is working feverishly to save the lives of Bangladeshi men, women and children. He went to Bangladesh two years ago to use his environmental science expertise to assist the Church of Bangladesh Social Development Programme (CBSDP).

“I had heard people talk about the arsenic crisis, but when I got to Bangladesh I realized this is the most serious ‘natural’ disaster in the world today,” he said, adding, “There are currently even more people in danger of arsenic poisoning than people infected with HIV/AIDS.”

Pender described visiting Alumpur, one of the worst affected villages. “Half of the people showed signs of arsenic poisoning. I met a woman whose 12-year-old daughter died from arsenicosis and another who lost her husband. They see people around them dying and they are worried – and desperate for help.”

Pender realized that he was in the right place at the right time. The CBSDP has been battling the arsenic crisis since 2000. Pender has been introducing new approaches and innovations that are enabling the Church to help more people. He is encouraged by the progress.

“We know twice as much about the arsenic crisis as we did two years ago,” he said. “And we know it can be solved.”

Combating the arsenic crisis involves making people aware of the poison, testing and identifying safe and unsafe water supplies, and most importantly, installing safe wells. The Church of Bangladesh is doing all this, and distributing vitamins and protein-rich foods that can help slow the effects of the poison.

But the only real solution for the estimated 29 to 80 million people at risk is clean water. Some people walk several miles to get to a safe well, so installing more wells is the most crucial need.

“The villagers can’t afford to put in wells themselves, but they help however they can, from physical labour to bringing us food,” said Pender.

All wells, even new ones, need frequent testing and monitoring since arsenic levels can change quickly. David Hall, another missionary supported in part by CMS, has joined Pender in Bangladesh. As a water engineer, Hall will bring vital skills to the CBSDP’s battle against arsenic.

“Good things are happening,” Pender stated, “Arsenic is a terrible disaster, but it’s a technical problem with a technical solution. But there is a cost involved.”

According to Pender, it costs about £400 to install a well that taps arsenic-safe water, and 50 pence to do a water test. Unfortunately, the funding for fighting arsenic is drying up.

Pender believes that if more people knew the magnitude of the situation, they would find ways to help. “My mother had a garden sale and sent me the money. I bought test kits with it,” he said. “People really can make a difference. We really need people to pray for those suffering here, and for wisdom as we work.”

The long-term commitment of Christians like Pender has impressed the people of Bangladesh, who are mostly Muslims and Hindus. “People respect how the Church loves and cares for the poor and vulnerable,” Pender said.

Growing up, Pender admired missionaries, but never dreamt he’d be involved with something like this himself. Now he sees it as part of being a Christian. “Jesus was concerned with people’s physical and spiritual needs. He fed the hungry; he healed the sick. We must offer living water, both physically and spiritually to the Bangladeshi people at their wells.

“Water is life,” he continued, “All people here really want is safe water to drink, and to cook and grow crops with. Recently, someone showed me pictures of a woman, before and after she had access to safe water. Her whole countenance had changed. That inspires me to keep working to make sure these people are not forgotten.”

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