International Workshop on Arsenic Mitigation: Inaugural Session

January 14, 2002

Speech of the Hon’ble Prime Minister

(unofficial translation by Han Heijnen)

Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim,

Special guests and Hon’ble colleagues of my cabinet,

Hon’ble Members of the Parliament

Diplomats and Officials

Distinguished Participants from home and abroad

Members of the Media

Ladies and Gentlemen

Assalamu Alaikum,

It is a matter of great delight for me to be present with you in this Inaugural Ceremony of the International Workshop on Arsenic Mitigation. Immediately after the formation of the Government we identified some programs to be implemented within 100 days on a priority basis. This workshop was one of them. We realize that Arsenic is a serious problem. We have to give due importance to the problem and solve it as soon as possible. By organizing this workshop within three months of formation of the government we want to create more awareness among all stakeholders and make them more active. I call upon all to play all possible role in an effective way.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The problem of arsenic contamination of ground water in Bangladesh has become a matter of serious concern. Arsenic contaminated tubewells have been detected in more than 50% of the Upazilas of the country. It is estimated that around 35 million people are drinking arsenic contaminated water and a lot more are potentially at risk. More than 10 thousand patients, suffering from chronic arsenic poisoning, so far have been identified. It is feared that the figure may rise substantially once the ongoing countrywide house-to-house survey for patients is complete.

Experts are concerned about the possible negative impact of arsenic contaminated irrigation water on land and crops. However I don’t have to say much about these issues. You know the situation better. I say these few words only to emphasize on the scale of the problem. Considering all aspects we have reached a conclusion that we must have a concerted national effort to solve the arsenic problem. To make it happened we ensure all possible help from the government side. However, we need a lot of private initiative and lot more international support to solve this huge problem.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Arsenic Problem has become a serious threat to our public health. The first step towards standing against this threat is to ensure arsenic safe water supply to the affected community. This must start with testing of tubewells for arsenic. By the end of this year we will complete the screening of each and every tubewells of those upazilas where arsenic affected tubewells have been detected in sample survey. House to house search for patients and massive awareness campaign has been conducted simultaneously. This program is being implemented through active involvement of the local community, local government institutions and local administrations. Different non-government organizations have been contracted in to provide necessary training and other capacity support. So far survey has been completed in 45 upazillas (sub districts) of the country.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The drinking water supply system in Bangladesh, particularly in rural areas, is predominantly based on shallow tubewells, shared both by the government and private owners. In different parts of the country arsenic has rendered the water from most of these tubewells unsuitable for drinking and cooking purposes. It has imposed an immediate responsibility on the government to provide alternatives to all this tubewells. We have to undertake an emergency program for the purpose. In every village where more than 80% of the tubewells are contaminated by arsenic, one source of safe drinking water will have to be provided. Apart from that, in areas where more than 40% of the tubewells are contaminated, arrangements are being made for providing community based water supply facilities.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Immediate and proper diagnosis of patients, so far identified by visible signs only, is an urgent necessity. Doctors and medical scientists must come to a consensus about the procedure and protocol for diagnosis of arsenicosis patients.

Treatment for arsenicosis patient is yet to be known. However scientist have been carrying on studies and research on the issue. We consider it essential to come to a consensus about the findings of these studies and researches and also on the co-relation of nutrition and intake of various types of foods and medicine with prevention and care of the disease. Simultaneously it is necessary to reach an agreement regarding the protocol for management of arsenic-affected patients. We expect to get some specific recommendations from the workshop on these issues.

We want to ensure proper medical facilities to arsenic patients. With a view to that training is being given to the doctors and health workers at the district and Upazila levels. Apart from that we are putting emphasis on the comprehensive studies and researches on the adverse impact of arsenic on human health.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I also see some light of hope behind the dark cloud of arsenic problem. Let me clear it little more. You know in arsenic affected areas people are engaged in different activities along with collecting safe drinking water. So, we can convert the struggle of arsenic mitigation into an opportunity to organize the community and actively engaged them in different local level activities. I think all activities towards facing this problem could be effectively implemented through an active involvement of the rural population. We also want to use our program for arsenic mitigation as an opportunity to define a new role for the local government institutions.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Bangladesh has vast resources of water. It is our responsibility to ensure proper use and management of this resource. Because to our future generations water resources will be consider an extremely valuable asset. I hope the arsenic problem will make us more conscious and keener about water resources management. I believe this international workshop will be able to give the government some specific guidance on the matters.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are yet to get the answers of many important technical questions relating to the arsenic problem. We need to know the exact causes and nature of the arsenic problem. We need to know the impact of arsenic on public health, agriculture and environment. We have to find out solutions to this problem. Our scientists and experts have to play the lead role here. It is their responsibility to give the government necessary advice and guidance on technical issues, identify areas of priority studies and researches and also to conduct such studies and researches. Exchange of knowledge and experience with international experts is essential for this purpose. We hope the present workshop will be useful for exchange of such knowledge and experience.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Arsenic problem is a multifarious problem. It has impact on different areas like water supply, health, agriculture, irrigation, and environment. As such different relevant ministries and agencies have to provide coordinated input in the mitigation of this problem. However it is not possible on the part of the government alone to mitigate the arsenic problem because it is not a small task. It demands a joint initiative from all. The arsenic mitigation efforts would be a social movement. All relevant organizations including non-government organizations, international aid agencies, private sector have to play complementary roles.

From the donor communities and other development partners we have received commitment of continued assistance and support for mitigation of arsenic contamination in Bangladesh. I like to thank them for standing shoulder to shoulder with us in this period of crisis.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am confident that by an active participation of the people and through a concerted effort of all concerned we will be able to save our country from the evil impact of arsenic contamination.

I like to conclude by thanking the organizers and participants of the workshop, particularly the international participants, who came all the way to join the workshop. Let this workshop conclude successfully by providing appropriate recommendations and guidance for solving this national problem.

Thank you all

Allah Hafez

Bangladesh Zindabad