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Thursday, 18 May, 2000, 15:48 GMT 16:48 UK
Water poisoning in Bangladesh
Floods in Bangladesh
Bangladesh has a real problem getting clean water
In 1999, a BBC World Service report by Susie Emmett prompted the Bangladesh Government and aid agencies to do more to tackle the problem of drinking water contaminated by arsenic - estimated to affect as many as 70m people.

Susie Emmet has returned to Bangladesh to find out if anything has changed.

They say that children are a great bridge between cultures but I have discovered another: knitting.

Having shown my careful start on a gently patterned sleeve to some women who work in the national radio service, I was invited to a wedding in a slum settlement beneath a radio transmitter in Dhaka.

In the darkness of one of the frequent power cuts, I waited in a small tin-walled, two-roomed shack with friends and family of the young couple. When the bride emerged into the shadowy, candle-lit gathering, the brocade of her shari and gold-sequined veil shimmered exquisitely around her bowed and serious face.

I could feel the thickened palms and the painful growths at her finger joints - the third and fatal stage of arsenicosis

She joined the equally serious young man who sat, cross-legged, and face covered on the bed - one of the three pieces of furniture they owned. In those magical minutes before power was restored and the candlelight was replaced by the cruel glare of a naked 60-watt bulb, the grim reality of future married life in the dense, dirty and chaotic city was forgotten.

But that is Bangladesh - bitter existence encased in incredible beauty.

Crossing barriers

The key to successful knitting - as any knitter will know - is even tension or perhaps the lack of tension in whoever is controlling the needles. So, you cannot knit while being driven in Bangladesh. For Bangladeshi drivers - of however many wheels - to give way is to give in. Speed, sudden braking and weaving across the path of others are a must.

The full intensity of the pre-monsoon heat and humidity really began to sink in on a provincial road. My vehicle was amongst the straining heavy lorries, overloaded rickshaws and trailers and smoke-belching baby taxis all hooting and nudging their way towards a narrow bridge.

Bad enough. But there was an equal stream of traffic converging from the opposite direction. And no-one was giving way. Knitting was one way to pass the hour of fierce shouting and wild gesticulating before deals were done and drivers were forced into using the unthinkable gear - reverse.

In fact my knitting probably delayed the solution still further as some of the key players at resolving the stalemate stopped to stare at my rhythmic knotting of fine four-ply wool.

I had a good reason for crossing that bridge. I was on my way, with the same extraordinarily dedicated and mild-mannered doctor I had travelled with a year earlier, to revisit a small village with some of the worst instances of arsenic poisoning in the country. Arsenic occurs naturally in the water below ground in Bangladesh.

They have been drinking the water they were assured was safe

The well-intentioned, far-reaching but ill thought-out aid effort to get the country drinking that water rather than bacteria-laden surface water is slowly killing millions in the largest mass poisoning in human history.

Bedena would find it difficult to knit. Again she welcomed me into her tidy home for strong, sweet tea. Holding her hands in mine I could feel the thickened palms and the painful growths at her finger joints which, together with internal cancers, are the third and fatal stage of arsenicosis.

In taking part in a recent clinical trial, a vitamin-rich dietary supplement derived from blue-green algae had eased her discomfort but it is too expensive for the likes of Bedena to afford for themselves.

Broken spirits

Bangladeshis stare at you deeper, longer and harder than any other people I have come across. But the hardest stares I found to return were of those in great pain or dying because they have been drinking the water they were assured was safe.

In the eyes of the man I met at one of the capital's hospitals I saw none of the much-praised resilience that the nation frequented by natural disasters often shows. The exhausted farmer had just made the long overnight bus journey from the far north in search of a cure for his ulcerated and bleeding hands.

He told me that his farming supported seven others, most of whom now also show some symptoms of arsenic. But working the land is becoming impossible and he is in debt. I watched a young doctor trying to break the news the farmer least wanted to hear.

Knitting that night, I cast off the shoulder stitches. And the sleeve finished in Bangladesh I now realise looks subtly quite different to the other sleeve and back and front knitted before.

But it is right that the means by which I was helped to experience and reflect on Bangladesh should bear testament to having done so. And I shall certainly pack needles and wool for the next journey.

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See also:

14 Mar 00 | World
'Billions without clean water'
10 Jan 99 | Water Week
Poisoned water endangers millions
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