Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

MAKE WELLS, NOT WAR: A PR Strategy for America

Getting a steady source of clean water to the millions of Bangladeshis and West Bengalis is more a matter of money and logistics than anything else.  February 22, 2002


The New York Times revealed last week that in fighting terrorism, the Bush administration is so desperate to influence foreign nations that the Pentagon is resorting to Orwellian tactics. But commentators have quickly pointed out that -- aside from further eroding the country's moral standing -- official deceit is self-defeating.

A better strategy would be to apply the lessons of the Marshall Plan, in which the U.S. waged peace by rebuilding friends and enemies alike after World War II. Likewise, now is an opportune time to aid the Muslim world.

Bangladesh might be a good place to start: by some estimates, millions of lives could be saved for as little as $20 a pop -- and a little organizational elbow grease.

In that impoverished South Asian nation, an estimated 35 to 70 million people are drinking arsenic-contaminated water. A 2001 report published by the World Health Organization called it "the largest mass poisoning of a population in history."

In some areas, the water is more than 50 times what WHO deems healthy. Arsenic exposure leads to lung, bladder, and kidney cancer after two decades, not to mention diabetes and heart disease. In some villages the majority of the population already suffers from disfiguring skin lesions from prolonged exposure to arsenic. As an environmental disaster it dwarfs Chernobyl and Bhopal.

The arsenic is naturally occurring. Ironically, the fact that so many people are drinking the poisoned water now is the result of an otherwise successful development initiative over the last two decades. In an effort to stop people from drinking dirty surface water, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and international development banks started an initiative that resulted in over 10 million wells being sunk. Unfortunately, nobody thought to test the otherwise clean wells for arsenic.

The international aid community has accomplished little since this problem was first identified as a public health disaster in the mid-1990s. UNICEF, already stretched thin throughout the world, only has a relatively modest remediation operation in place. "Our biggest impediment has been raising financial resources," said Vanessa Tobin, who runs the organization's clean water program.

The World Bank allocated $44 million in aid in 1999, but so far only a fourth of it has been spent, mitigating 3 percent of the wells. Carter Brandon, chief economist for the Bank's South Asian environmental unit, admitted that implementation had been sluggish. Yet in contrast with UNICEF's Tobin, Brandon said the inactivity resulted not from a money shortage, but rather a lack of on-the-ground organization. He blamed the Bangladeshi government, as the Bank itself just makes loans. A new administration is in power now, he said, and there are plans to test more than 3 million wells.

Scientists, meanwhile, contend that the main hurdle is a lack of political will. A conference late last year at Columbia University brought together scores of U.S., British, and Bangladeshi epidemiologists, hydro-geologists, and geochemists. The conference was surprising, in that for all of the unknowns and the scientific propensity towards hedging, these experts agreed that solving the problem is clearly in reach. Getting a steady source of clean water to the millions of Bangladeshis and West Bengalis is more a matter of money and logistics than anything else.

Drilling deeper wells is one favored option, as the researchers found that wells more than 150 meters deep contain tolerably low levels of arsenic. Mass testing and mapping could further solve the problem, allowing the use of shallower (and therefore cheaper) wells. Other fixes include community organizing and education, distributing cheap water filters, and making use of the region's abundant rainfall.

The scientists estimated that comprehensively testing all of the region's wells quickly gets into the tens of millions of dollars. The cost of digging the original wells was around $500 million; a substantial number of deeper wells could easily cost twice that. Still, the cost estimates are modest considering the number of lives at stake. "It's money plus an institution that is capable of doing this right," said Yan Zheng, a scientist at the City University of New York who has been working on the problem in Bangladesh.

Unfortunately, the chances that the world's richest nation will come to the rescue are grim. In his State of the Union address, President George Bush called for the largest increase in defense spending in two decades. The day before, the administration rejected an international call to double the U.S. foreign aid budget, which has not changed in the last 10 years. As a percentage of the total economy, foreign aid is the lowest it has been since the end of World War II.

Of course, for U.S. politicians, the 50 million people in Bangladesh and West Bengal are at best a distant notion. Yet they could be saved for the cost of funding the controversial counter-insurgency in Colombia or bailing out the airline industry -- never mind the billions of dollars spent waging war in Afghanistan. The 50 million beneficiaries might not be U.S. voters, but they are Muslim. These days, that might not be a bad public relations move.

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