Oct 22 2009
WASHINGTON—Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries on earth, is a tough place to get a drink of water you can trust.
The country, surrounded by India and overlooking the Bay of Bengal, is laced with rivers and dotted with lakes and ponds. But most of the water is polluted.
One particular kind of pollution in Bangladesh is naturally- occurring arsenic. Water with arsenic in it is often sparkling clear and tastes great, according to Abul Hussam, who grew up in Bangladesh and is now the director of the Center for Clean Water and Sustainable Technologies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
But drink water with high-levels of arsenic for 10 years or so and bad things start to happen. One result of gradual arsenic poisoning is that the palms of the hands and soles of feet dry out and crack like old leather baked in the sun. Sometimes gangrene sets in and amputation is required. Some people develop cancers.
The water in more than 40 countries is contaminated in varying degrees with arsenic. But the contamination in Bangladesh, with 140 million people, is among the worst. Arsenic contamination is also an especially serious problem in parts of India, China, Mongolia and Cambodia.
Dr. Hussam, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and his brother, Abul K. Munir, a medical doctor, began running tests on water in Bangladesh and found unhealthy levels of arsenic almost everywhere. They even found it in their own family’s wells in the city of Kushtia, near the western border with India.
“We had to do something,” Professor Hussam said.
Professor Hussam came up with a simple water filter that extracts the arsenic. The device consists of two thick plastic buckets – one red, the other green - containing a cast iron composite, charcoal, sand and gravel. A light metal frame holds the buckets, one above the other. You pour water into the top bucket, the red one. It trickles into bucket Number Two. Below bucket Number Two you place the kind of clay jug that people in Bangladesh have been using forever as containers for water. When the water hits the clay jug it is clean and ready for drinking.
Professor Hussam calls his creation the “SONO Filter.” He did the early development of the filter, he said, at his brother’s SONO Diagnostic Center in Kushtia. SONO, he said, is a local term for ultra-sound.
The filters sell for $30 to $40. That is too much for people who are living on less than $1.50 a day. But the Department of Public Health and Engineering in Bangladesh and private aid organizations have found that the filters work well and have begun buying them and handing them out to families. Highest priority goes to families where the damage has been most severe.
The National Academy of Engineering in Washington, D.C., was so impressed that in 2007 it awarded Professor Hussam its Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability which provided $1 million to the winner. The challenge that year was to design an affordable, easy to maintain way of removing arsenic from water around the world. Only devices that required no electricity were considered. Professor Hussam said he is spending most of the money in Bangladesh to manufacture and distribute filters and to do further research.
The arsenic problem arose in Bangladesh as a result of an attempt by the government to deal with another kind of pollution. Bangladesh is one of the countries in the world where millions of people do not have toilets. It is also one of the most flooded countries in the world. The floods mix animal and human waste, garbage and fertilizer into the drinking water.
The government decided to drill wells, millions of them, most operated with hand pumps. The water that came up through the wells looked good. It also contained fewer bacteria than the surface water that people had been drinking, and illnesses and deaths from diarrhea diminished. But the well-water turned out to be contaminated with arsenic.
Professor Hussam and his brother set up a factory in Bangladesh to make the filters. They have produced 130,000 filters that they estimate are in the homes of about 500,000 people. They say another half million people, neighbors, are also getting their water cleaned through the same filters.
But the scale of the arsenic contamination is overwhelming. Professor Hussam estimates that more than 80 million people in Bangladesh are drinking water containing unhealthy levels of arsenic. The government puts the number at about 37 million.
For Professor Hussam, his filters are no more than “a very temporary solution.” A much more extensive approach is needed, he told me.
He has begun campaigning for village and town-sized versions of his filters or, as he says, “community water treatment systems.” He also says he thinks it is possible to clean up the water in the lakes and rivers and keep it clean. A significant part of the solution is providing toilets.
And where will the money for all of this come from?
Professor Hussam said he thinks the answer is private business, entrepreneurs. Many advocates for clean water insist that this work is the duty of governments. Those advocates worry that private investors will eventually price water beyond the reach of many people. Not professor Hussam.
“There is business to be done here,” he said. “We’ve approached the government and they’re not very helpful. The government doesn’t have the money. It’s as simple as that.” #