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Sunday, January 10, 1999 Published at 16:38 GMT

World: South Asia

Bangladesh arsenic crisis

Arsenic causes potentially fatal tumours and respiratory problems

Tests on 50,000 wells in Bangladesh have shown that around 40% are too contaminated with arsenic to provide drinking water, according to a World Bank official.

Babar Kabir, head of the bank's Water and Sanitation programme, told Reuters that tests on another 30,000 wells also showed arsenic in nearly 40% of the wells.

The tests, carried out by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), ended last week, and represent a first step towards tackling a crisis which has developed in the past decade.

According to some reports, arsenic poisoning could threaten 75 million of Bangladesh's 120 million population, mostly in the north and west of the country.

The wells - of a type known as tubewells - provide water for 90% of the population.

They were introduced by aid agencies, intended as a reliable source of clean ground water in a country where surface water is often contaminated by disease.

But naturally-occuring arsenic in the earth appears to have contaminated the water which collects in the wells.

Deadly poison

[ image: Red paint is used to mark an unsafe well]
Red paint is used to mark an unsafe well
If taken in sufficient quantities, arsenic can cause serious skin conditions, tumours and breathing difficulties, which can lead to death.

The World Bank announced in August that it would provide $30m dollars in aid to Bangladesh to combat arsenic contamination in its water supplies.

Mr Kabir estimated that Bangladesh would eventually require $275 million in the next 10 to 12 years to fight the problem.

He said the World Bank was committed to providing the funds, but added: "We need to determine what is really causing (the contamination) and provide an alternative to get people safe water."

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