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The Arsenic Crisis in the Asian Region

The pollution of drinking water by arsenic has become a serious challenge for people living in various parts of Asia as well as Latin America. The problem, by far, is much more severe in South Asia and China. The estimated number of people drinking arsenic-contaminated groundwater are of astonishing proportions: more than 35 million in Bangladesh, more than 1 million in India and more than 100,000 in Nepal. Tens of thousand cases of arsenicosis patients have been reported in South Asia. Similarly, several thousand patients have been identified in the Shanxi Province of China.

Our awareness of this crisis has grown dramatically during the late 1990's - particularly in the context of the presence of arsenic in groundwater extracted from the alluvial aquifer underlying West Bengal and Bangladesh. Naturally- occurring and human-induced arsenic pollution in drinking water has since been discovered in many parts of the world. We can now regard it as a problem of truly global dimensions. Successfully managing such a problem requires our earnest attention and the collaborative efforts of researchers, practitioners and officials.

Various aspects of the crisis deserve our attention - both at the technological and policy development level. These aspects include water treatment technologies, safe water options, fate of arsenic in the environment, treatment of arsenicosis patients, community involvement and strategic policy orientation.

In a broad sense, the arsenic crisis indicates the importance of water resource management in the Third World countries. We know that water as a resource is going to become much more precious and scarce in the next few decades. This demands the serious attention from policymakers and researchers alike. Considerable efforts are being made internationally to better understand the nature of these challenges and identify timely and successful interventions for coping with them. As an example, the Third World Water Forum is being organized here in Japan during March 2002. The breadth of water research and policy issues will be discussed and action-oriented output is expected. It is up to the scientific community to provide necessary and important input into that process.

Water issues have played a central role in the UNU's activities on environment and sustainable development. We have, at the moment, a number of projects that deal with international river basins, monitoring water pollution in coastal areas and research on fate of arsenic in groundwater. Other broader areas of water research such as history of water and the world lake vision are also important activities.

We, at UNU, had realized the importance of the arsenic crisis earlier on and launched a project to develop household technologies in 1999. Our partners in that endeavor are the colleagues from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). After successful completion of laboratory work, UNU and BUET were able to install a number of household water treatment units in two villages. These units have been successfully running for more than a year now and are accepted well by the villagers themselves.

We have embarked on a new initiative with BUET which will investigate the fate of arsenic in the environment. This will help fill an existing gap in our knowledge - that is, what happens to arsenic once it is withdrawn from the aquifer and used most frequently for agricultural purposes. Today, very limited information is available about uptake of arsenic into plants and its fate in our food chain. We hope that our scientific research will lead to finding some of the answers to these important questions.

Prof. Motoyuki Suzuki
Vice Rector, UNU ESD

Excerpts from a Speech on 18 February 2002

Last Update: 1 November 2002