A cold, clear, sparkling flow gushes from the tubewell where Pinjra Begum used to collect drinking water for her family. Married at age 15 to a millworker, she had made a pretty bride. Soon, however, her skin began to turn blotchy, then ultimately gangrenous and repulsive. Her husband remarried. In 2000 she died of cancer, at 26 years of age, leaving three children.
Pinjra Begum was poisoned by the beautiful water she had faithfully pumped. In the 1970s and 1980s the Bangladesh government, along with international aid agencies spearheaded by UNICEF, undertook an ambitious project to bring clean water to the nation's villages. Too many children were dying of diarrhea from drinking surface water contaminated with bacteria. The preferred solution was a tubewell: a simple, hardy, hand-operated pump that sucks water, through a pipe, from a shallow underground aquifer. The well-to-do could afford them, and with easy loans from nongovernmental agencies, many of the poor also installed the contraptions in their courtyards. A tubewell became a prized possession: it lessened the burden on women, who no longer had to trek long distances with their pots and pails; it reduced the dependence on better-off neighbors; and most important, it provided pathogen-free water to drink. By the early 1990s 95 percent of Bangladesh's population had access to "safe" water, virtually all of it through the country's more than 10 million tubewells--a rare success story in the otherwise impoverished nation.
This article was originally published with the title Arsenic Crisis in Bangladesh.