THE CRISIS OF CAPACITY:
A CASE STUDY OF
ARSENIC CONTAMINATION IN
BANGLADESH AND WEST BENGAL
Priya Harish Patel
An Honors Thesis
Department of Environmental Science and Public Policy
The voices and thoughts of numerous people have helped to shape this thesis. First, I would like to thank Professor Richard Wilson for awakening me to the urgency of the arsenic problem and helping to open the door to Bangladesh and West Bengal. I am extremely grateful to Ross Nickson, my supervisor at UNICEF Bangladesh, who led me through the complicated web of Bangladeshi politics and continuously challenged me to think beyond the box. Mizanur Rahman, my supervisor at the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, also put up with my incessant questions and constantly helped me to find the right answers. Over the border in West Bengal, I extend my appreciation to Dr. Dipenkar Chakraborti whose passion and love for the Bengali people showed me the ‘real’ picture. Thank you to all the people whom I interviewed in San Diego, Dhaka, and Calcutta – their trust and honesty was essential in making this a useful and interesting endeavor. I am most gratefully indebted to Professor Sheila Jasanoff. Beyond all the time and effort she has poured into my thesis, I thank her for introducing me to the exciting world of environmental politics and fostering my deep interest in issues of sustainable development. Finally, thank you to my family and friends for supporting and encouraging me from beginning to end.
Table of Contents
List of Acronyms………….…...…...…………………………………...1
1. Arsenic: The Invisible Threat…...………….…..…………….………7
2. Setting the Scene for Crisis.……....……..………………….………24
3. A Weak State of Affairs.……...…..………………….…….………49
4. The Failure of Governance……...…....…………...……….….……68
5. Bengal and Beyond………..…………..………………..….………79
Appendix: Research Methodologies……...…..………...………..97
List of Acronyms
ARC – Arsenic Review Committee Bangladesh
BAMWSP – Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation Water Supply Project
BRAC – Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee
CBO – community-based organization
DEPC – Department of Environmental Pollution Control Bangladesh
DGHS – Directorate General of Health Services
DOE – Department of Environment
DPHE – Department of Public Health Engineering Bangladesh
LGRD – Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development Bangladesh
MEF – Ministry of Environment and Forests India
MOEF – Ministry of Environment and Forests Bangladesh
NAMIC – National Arsenic Mitigation Information Center Bangladesh
NCEPC – National Committee on Environmental Planning and Coordination West Bengal
NGO – non-governmental organization
NIPSOM – National Institute of Social and Preventative Medicine Bangladesh
PHED – Public Health Engineering Department West Bengal
PMU – Project Management Unit Bangladesh
SAE – sub-assistant engineer
SOES – School of Environmental Studies, Jadavpur University West Bengal
UNICEF – United Nations Children’s Fund
UP – Union Parishad Bangladesh
VHW – village health worker Bangladesh
WHO – World Health Organization
Introduction My Journey
"Where are we going to land?" I thought, inwardly panicking as acres and acres of water drew ever nearer with each passing second. At that moment, I recalled that Bangladesh was in fact the most densely populated country in the world and that 35 million people in this watery wonderland were suffering from lack of safe drinking water. I ignored these distracting thoughts as my plane safely landed on a magically appearing island of hard ground. A week later, I was rudely awakened to the reality of Bangladeshi life when I visited a rural village. There, within the wetlands and rivers that are Bangladesh, millions of people had erected little huts held up by hardy strips of bamboo. And there, I saw my first arsenicosis patient - his hands and chest were discolored and three fingers had been cut off due to gangrene, a symptom of advanced, chronic arsenic-poisoning. Here, within this green haven, millions of people were and are still living in a kind of hell - a hell they cannot see, taste, or feel but which invades their bodies through the water they drink and will eventually kill them.
In 1998, when I heard about the arsenic contamination problem in Bangladesh and West Bengal, I was shocked. Millions of people in my homeland of South Asia were at risk of dying from naturally-occurring arsenic – and yet, neither I, nor the majority of the world, had heard anything about it. How could such a disaster have been ignored? If nothing were done to solve this problem, the eventual casualties would exceed almost any war or genocide we have seen this century. I immediately felt a pressing need to somehow help. But here I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, half a world away. How could I possibly be meaningfully involved? The following year, I decided to write my thesis about the arsenic crisis in the hopes of contributing to the fight to provide the Bengali people with safe water, a basic right of all human beings.
This document is the result of my journeys through Bangladesh and West Bengal, a journey that began in June 2000 at the 4th International Conference on Arsenic Exposure and Health Effects. Scientists and policymakers from all over the world had convened in San Diego to discuss this little known poison that threatens the health of people throughout the world. Taiwan, China, Peru, and the United States have all been forced to confront the difficulties of arsenic; however, never had the world seen a problem as large and widespread as arsenic contamination in the Bengal region. Numerous experts from India and Bangladesh had traveled to San Diego to voice the sufferings of their people and share their experiences. I immediately began utilizing this wealth of knowledge by conducting interviews. I spoke with policymakers from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the World Bank and scientists from China, South America, and the United States. The week quickly expired and I left the conference with a notebook full of information and a mind brimming with questions unanswered.
In my search for answers, I traveled to Dhaka, Bangladesh, where for nine weeks I immersed myself in the complex, convoluted web of politics that defines arsenic management. Interning with the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), a large, national non-governmental organization, I gained enormous insight into the power of participation. Run with efficiency and effectiveness, BRAC transformed my perception of the importance of NGOs. The numerous teatime conversations I had with Bangladeshi men and women allowed me to understand native perspectives on development and politics. Through field trips to arsenic-affected villages, I gained first-hand experience with mitigation measures and invaluable insight into the lives of arsenic victims.
However, I realized that my picture of Bangladesh was incomplete without understanding the role of international aid agencies. So, for the last two weeks of my stay, I volunteered with the Water and Environmental Sanitation Section of UNICEF. There, all the pieces finally came together. For over a month, I had been struggling to dissect arsenic management in Bangladesh - trying to figure who was doing what, where, and how effectively. I had conducted over thirty hours of interviews with politicians and scientists from governmental and non-governmental organizations. I had spent weeks riffling through government documents, newspaper articles, and project plans. But still my understanding was nebulous. At UNICEF, I had the amazing opportunity to synthesize all my thoughts and experiences of the previous weeks by working on the second phase plan of UNICEF’s Action Research into Community Based Arsenic Mitigation. As I carefully examined the rough draft of the plan, I realized the real-life difficulties of planning for and implementing mitigation. I recognized the key roles of every actor and the major impediments preventing organizations from working together effectively. And, with all these pieces finally brought together, I saw for the first time a possible way out of the crisis.
Although I had come to grasp arsenic in Bangladesh, the situation in West Bengal was a conundrum. My journey next led me to West Bengal’s crowded capital of Calcutta. There, I joined Dr. Dipenkar Chakraborti’s lab at the School of Environmental Studies (SOES), Jadavpur University. As the first organization to alert the Bangladeshi authorities to arsenic, SOES gave me the unique perspective of years of experience in both Bangladesh and West Bengal. SOES was the perfect transition needed to orient myself to the West Bengali setting. Through visits to rural Bengali villages, imposing government buildings, bustling hospital wards, I began to comprehend arsenic management in West Bengal. Again, I interviewed employees of numerous organizations ranging from UNICEF to the Center for Science and the Environment to the Public Health Engineering Department.
As my three weeks in Calcutta came to a close, I was left with a strange mixture of feelings. On one hand, I was thrilled to have spent three months exploring first-hand the realm of environmental politics in the developing world and to have come away with significant insights into the management of environmental problems. At the same time, I was unsatisfied. In a few months new policies and programs would have emerged to mitigate arsenic and I could not possibly understand the intricate dynamics of these changes from my home in the United States. I yearned to make a lasting contribution to the people and organizations who had welcomed me over the summer and allowed me to learn from their knowledge and experience. Through this case study of arsenic contamination in Bangladesh and West Bengal, I hope to provide long-term insights regarding environmental management and capacity-building in the developing world.
The following chapters weave together the stories of Bangladesh and West Bengal. While providing a critique of capacity, my thesis suggests the path a policy-maker should follow when designing development programs. The first chapter provides a technical overview of arsenic and arsenic contamination. Knowing the source, cause, and effect of the problem is essential to creating appropriate policies and mitigation technologies. In fact, much of the delay in implementing actual mitigation programs in Bangladesh and West Bengal resulted from lack of knowledge concerning arsenic. The government and international aid agencies did not understand the geographical extent of the problem or the cause of arsenic contamination and thus could do little more than research. Transferring knowledge from scientists to politicians is an essential and often missing part of problem recognition and policy design.
Chapter 2 explores the past and present of environmental management in Bangladesh and West Bengal. Establishing the strengths and weaknesses of existing institutions allows the policymaker to create appropriate programs. Responsibility cannot be given to organizations that do not have the infrastructure capabilities or experience to deal with the issue. Carefully evaluating capacity is necessary for capacity-building. Furthermore, for the purposes of this study, the institutional setting of Bangladesh and West Bengal provides a background from which to evaluate arsenic management.
The next two chapters critique the institutional dimensions of arsenic in each setting. As we analyze the roles of the government, NGOs, international aid agencies, and the local people, we see how surpluses and deficits of capacity have shaped overall management strategies. Despite the fact that their problem is the same, Bangladesh and West Bengal have each taken its own individual approach to solving the arsenic problem. The sharp contrasts between these approaches suggest an array of possibilities for improving environmental management.
Finally, Chapter 5 arrives at several broad conclusions to improve governance in the developing world. We will explore different definitions of capacity-building as well as the dangers of definition. We will also examine questions of institutional interaction central to environmental and developmental politics. As capacity-building increasingly becomes the catch phrase of development, we must ensure that the word itself is framed appropriately for the developing world context. After all, policymakers not only plan for the present but also shape the future. The goals they embrace today will inevitably have long-term implications for tomorrow.
1. Arsenic: The Invisible Threat
Nothing seems to be going right for this country – we have cyclones, we have floods. Finally, we seem to have one success having ensured that there was safe water and suddenly, we find out there’s arsenic."
– Babar Kabir, World Bank
A crisis is occurring in the Bengal Basin - some estimate that as many as "75 million of Bangladesh’s 120 million population" are at risk of arsenic poisoning. Compare this to other major environmental disasters of the 20th century. The highly publicized Chernobyl disaster of 1986 "affected 17 million people to some degree," while the 1984 Bhopal disaster killed 3,500 and injured 150,000 others. Despite the alarmingly high number of people who are at risk of arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh and West Bengal, in the West, both the media and the public have overlooked this environmental and public health crisis. The cause of the arsenic problem may be natural and the effect of arsenic poisoning gradual, yet millions of lives are in danger. This simple fact cannot be ignored. Action is sorely needed; however, for any individual or organization to act effectively and efficiently a thorough understanding of arsenic and its occurrence in Bengal is essential.
What is Arsenic?
Positioned between germanium and selenium on the periodic chart, arsenic is a metalloid element and thus, has a broad range of chemical activity. Most commonly, arsenic is present in compounds with sulfur and other metals, although it also forms covalent bonds with non-metals such as carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Arsenic exists in groundwater in four main inorganic and organic forms: arsenite (AsIII), arsenate (AsV), monomethyl arsonic acid (MMAV), and dimethyl arsinic acid (DMAV). These forms vary greatly in their toxicity; in decreasing toxicity, the order of the chemical species is arsenite, arsenate, MMA, and DMA. Unfortunately for the people of Bangladesh and West Bengal, the majority of arsenic in groundwater is in the form of the more toxic arsenite and arsenate.
Health Effects and Treatment of Arsenic Poisoning
Arsenic can enter one’s body through ingestion or inhalation. Since arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh and West Bengal is the result of groundwater contamination, I will focus on the pathway of water-borne arsenic in humans. Arsenite and arsenate are the most common forms of arsenic in groundwater, as well as the most toxic of the four compounds. The pathway they follow through the human body is incredibly important to understanding arsenicosis, the disease caused by chronic arsenic poisoning. When arsenite and arsenate enter the human body, they bind to tissues, inhibit enzyme activity, and interfere with cell respiration and mitosis. In other words, they wreak havoc on the human body. In order to reduce the detrimental effects of these compounds, the body uses a detoxifying methylation mechanism to convert arsenite and arsenate to inorganic MMAV and DMAV. However, during the conversion of inorganic species to organic species, an extremely toxic intermediary compound, MMAIII, is formed. Many scientists are currently studying this compound since it may add significantly to the overall carcinogenicity of inorganic arsenic. Once inorganic forms have been converted to MMAV and DMAV, they are excreted from the body. Thus, the presence of DMAV and MMAV in the urine, skin, hair, and nails is often evidence of arsenic poisoning. Urinary arsenic content best indicates recent exposure to arsenic since arsenic appears in the urine within two to eight hours and disappears within seven days. Arsenic content in the skin, hair and nails is more useful for measuring long-term exposure to arsenic.
In very low concentrations, arsenic has the power to kill immediately. Chronic exposure to arsenic has the debilitating effect of slowly destroying its victim, subjecting him or her to the social trauma and physical pain of arsenicosis. Effects of arsenicosis include among other things weakness, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, skin rash, hoarse voice, and hair loss. More severe clinical manifestations of arsenicosis include skin discoloration (melanosis), cracking of palms and soles (keratosis), and finally, gangrene and cancer. Skin manifestations appear only five to ten years after the commencement of exposure. Later stages such as cancer can take decades to develop.
When I visited a village in Deganga, West Bengal, I met a family in which the father and 12 year-old son showed severe signs of skin discoloration while other members of the family, also exposed to contaminated well water, remained unaffected. This surprising situation (and others like it) raises many questions. Why does arsenic terribly debilitate some people but hardly affect others? How do environment, nutrition, and genetics affect responses to arsenic poisoning? Many researchers are working to answer the questions that remain regarding the health effects of arsenic. Nutrition has been found to have a significant effect on an individual’s susceptibility to arsenicosis; the more malnourished a person, the greater the probability that he or she will display signs of arsenicosis. Age and sex are other factors that are being researched. Yanauchi et. al discovered that individuals below the age of twelve have a greater ability than older individuals to biomethylate inorganic arsenic species and thus, detoxify the poison. Nevertheless, clinical signs of arsenic poisoning have been found in children at five years of age. Basing their conclusion on research showing elevated levels of arsenic in the biological samples of children exposed to arsenic, other studies claim that children are more susceptible to arsenic poisoning . Yanauchi et. al. found sex to have no impact. Another question which has been plaguing researchers and policy-makers is the nature of the dose-response curve for arsenic. By discerning this relationship, researchers would be better able to predict the effect of specific levels of arsenic on a population, thus providing policy makers with a more accurate method by which to set regulatory limits. Despite the extensive research on this question, a definite answer has not yet been found.
Compared to the uncertainties regarding the treatment for arsenicosis, the health effects of arsenic are fairly well understood. In general, the only definite way to cure arsenicosis is by supplying safe water to victims. A patient with mild skin discoloration may recover completely by drinking safe water; a more severe arsenicosis patient will probably retain skin manifestations, though sub-clinical effects may be reversed. To temporarily treat keratosis of the palms and soles, doctors provide patients with medicines such as salicylic acid ointments and anti-fungal cream. Since good nutrition is known to reduce the effect of arsenicosis, vitamin supplements are also useful (specifically Vitamin A, C, and E). However, the incurability of arsenicosis mandates finding a safe source of drinking water for the people of Bangladesh and West Bengal.
Social Effects of Arsenicosis
In some rural villages, arsenicosis is given the name "Curse of God." This only hints at the social trauma wrought by arsenicosis, which in many instances far outweighs the physical pain and suffering. In the rural villages of Bangladesh and West Bengal, discolored skin and cracking soles, not to mention skin cancer, can mean societal isolation for the victim. Because of the lack of knowledge about arsenicosis, people often mistake the disease for leprosy. Entire villages are isolated and treated like leper colonies. Women are abandoned by their husbands, young women and men cannot get married, men lose their jobs, children are kept home from school to hide the disease. Narayan Sil, a severe arsenicosis patient from Bangladesh’s Faridhur district, describes a victim being forbidden to even sit at the village tea-stall; "he is permitted to buy tea, but has to bring his own cup and cannot stay to drink." Arsenicosis means social devastation for the patient. Individuals are forced not only to endure a disease they cannot escape, but also to suffer social persecution.
Source and Location of Arsenic in Bengal
Arsenic is naturally present throughout all environmental media - air, water, and earth, although the highest concentration of arsenic is beneath the earth’s surface. Arsenic originates inside the earth and is then transported upward to the air, water, and surface by various natural and anthropogenic processes. Natural processes include volcanic activity, weathering, and biological activity. Anthropogenic sources of arsenic are geothermal power plants, fossil fuel combustion, smelting, mining, and groundwater pumping.
In Bangladesh and West Bengal, naturally-occurring arsenic has been found in the groundwater aquifers. The alluvial sediments composing the aquifers of these areas were carried down from the Himalayas and surrounding mountain ranges by an intricate, broad-reaching network of three major rivers, the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna. Together, these three rivers annually carry 2.4 billion tons of sediment from their combined 1.5 million square kilometer catchment area. This huge amount of sediment forms the fluvio-deltaic areas that comprise a large portion of Bangladesh and the eastern part of West Bengal.
The aquifers of Bangladesh and West Bengal were created slowly over time as rivers carried sediments to the Bengal Basin. The sediments in any particular aquifer vary and consequently contribute differing levels of arsenic to the groundwater. Groundwater contamination has been principally found in the top 150 meters of the alluvial sediments, while deeper aquifers largely appear to be safe. When the British Geological Survey tested 250 tube wells below 200 meters in 1998, less than 1% of these tube wells were found to contain arsenic above 50 ppb. However, the safety of the deep aquifer and its consequent use is currently a topic of heated debate in India and Bangladesh, since in certain areas the impermeable clay layer separating the shallow and deep aquifers is missing, thus allowing for possible cross-contamination.
Interestingly, the concentration of arsenic has been found to vary horizontally as well as vertically; one well may have 500 ppb of arsenic while a neighboring tube well of similar depth only 10 meters away may contain arsenic-free water. This phenomenon may be the result of the path that the rivers have taken. Over time, rivers deposit their sediments in meander belts. These meander belts criss-cross and overlap, layering
sediments next to and on top of older sediments. As sediments (some containing high levels of arsenic and others containing no arsenic) filled the Bengal Basin, arseniferous aquifers could have been cut off from adjacent non-arseniferous aquifers. This meander belt theory could account for the drastic differences often found in neighboring tube wells. The sporadic nature of arsenic contamination makes estimating risk of arsenic poisoning very difficult and subject to error.
Arsenic contamination in Bengal came as a surprise to many geologists since the most common arsenic mineral, arsenopyrite, generally does not occur in alluvial sediments. Also, the presence of arsenic is associated with volcanic activity or metaliferous mining, neither of which is present in the Bengal Basin. As a result of these factors, compounded by insufficient laboratory facilities for testing groundwater, the possibility of arsenic in the groundwater of Bangladesh and West Bengal was not considered before the installation of tube wells as the effective means of acquiring safe drinking water. In fact, arsenic in the sediments was so unexpected that when arsenic was first discovered in Bangladesh, people thought the source of arsenic was telephone poles coated in arsenic-containing paint. Scientists now know that the younger sediments carried down from the Himalayan uplands particularly by the Ganges River contain high levels of arsenic and are the source of the arsenic contamination.
The mechanism by which arsenic leaches from the sediments to the aqueous medium is not well understood. Understanding the mechanism by which arsenic enters the groundwater could have a lasting impact not only in terms of predicting areas potentially vulnerable to groundwater contamination but also in creating arsenic mitigation technologies. Several theories concerning the mechanism of arsenic leaching from the sediments have been proposed, though none has gained unanimous support. The theory of pyrite oxidation claims that heavy withdrawal of groundwater allows oxygen to enter into the aquifer that then reacts with the iron sulfide compounds containing arsenic. Iron-oxide is formed while the sulfide and arsenic are precipitated into the groundwater. The lack of sulfide in the groundwater of Bangladesh and West Bengal seems to disprove this theory although several additional theories have been advanced to account for this lack. In 1998, the British Geological Survey put forth an additional theory referring to the process of oxyhydride reduction. In this process, the dissolution of iron or manganese oxyhydrides under anoxic conditions results in the release of arsenic. While researchers believe that arsenic contamination is the result of a variety of natural mechanisms, others believe that the release of arsenic may be augmented in some areas by the use of agricultural inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides.
Discovery of Arsenic in Bengal
In 1978, abnormally high levels of arsenic were detected in the groundwater of West Bengal. A few years later, arsenicosis patients were identified; discolored and corroded skin signaled the fatal illness. These were just the beginnings of the arsenic contamination problem in the Bengal Basin. To better understand the source, scope, and effects of arsenic in groundwater, the West Bengal government organized a working group in 1983; however, the working group uncovered very little information about arsenic and consequent efforts to address the problem were minimal. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, efforts to understand and address the arsenic problem were revived. In 1988, government agencies began extensive research and testing programs on the problem. After a decade of research, scientists now have detected the presence of arsenic in nine of West Bengal’s eighteen districts, all abutting the Indian border with Bangladesh. Arsenic levels in the water generally range between 50-500 ppb, although levels nearly as high as 3000 ppb, sixty times the WHO maximum permissible limit, have been found. Although figures vary, the extrapolated estimate of the number of people at risk of arsenic poisoning is generally thought to be 5 million people out of the 68 million people in West Bengal.
In 1992, the School of Environmental Studies, Jadavpur University, made a surprising discovery. A Bangladeshi woman who had settled in West Bengal after marriage was identified to have arsenical skin lesions; however, this woman had not lived long enough in West Bengal to acquire sufficient arsenic in her body to display clinical manifestations. Thus, SOES hypothesized that arsenic contamination of groundwater also existed across the border in Bangladesh. Upon being interviewed, the woman revealed that many of her relatives and neighbors in Bangladesh exhibited similar skin lesions. SOES published their findings and in 1993, began to analyze hair, skin, nail, and urine samples from the growing number of people coming from Bangladesh to Calcutta for treatment. The results became more and more convincing—Bangladesh had not escaped the cruel fate of arsenic contamination.
Still, alarm did not spread to the other side of the border. Organizations in Bangladesh continued to either ignore or remain ignorant of the findings until 1995, when a conference at Jadavpur University drew international attention to arsenic on both sides of the border. Soon after the conference, Bangladeshi hospitals and organizations in the health and water sectors began contacting their Bengali counterparts to learn more about arsenic and the treatment of arsenicosis. At first, only the districts bordering West Bengal were thought to be affected by arsenic. Today, the southwestern, middle, and northeastern parts of the country are all known to be affected by abnormally high levels of arsenic; more than half of Bangladesh’s districts have been found to have groundwater contaminated by arsenic. Approximately twenty to thirty-five million of Bangladesh’s 120 million people are at risk of arsenic poisoning. Because the majority of the country’s tube wells have not been tested, a definite estimate regarding the extent of contamination cannot be conjectured. Regardless of exact estimates, the scale of the arsenic problem in Bangladesh and West Bengal undoubtedly demands immediate attention and remediation.
Looking Back: The Beginning of the Arsenic Problem
Why has arsenic contamination only recently become a problem? The answer can be traced back to the late 1960s when tube wells first were installed widely in this part of the world. Throughout the history of Bengal and even today, diarrhoeal diseases have been a major if not the principal cause of mortality. Consequently, during the 1970s and 1980s, international, national, and sub-national organizations in these two countries focused their energy, research, and money on improving sanitation for the rural and urban poor. Sewage contamination of surface waters, which people used for drinking water, was thought to be the main cause of diarrhoeal diseases. Thus, the governments of Bangladesh and West Bengal and international aid agencies sunk over four million tube wells to provide a clean, safe source of drinking water—groundwater. After struggling for over a decade to convince the rural poor to use this new source of drinking water, international, national, and sub-national organizations succeeded in accustoming people to the use of groundwater. By 2000, 97% of the rural Bangladeshi population was drawing their drinking water from tube wells. Installing a shallow tube well has become cheap, easy, and socially acceptable for households. Although at first tube wells were installed by aid organizations, today four out of every five tube wells in Bangladesh are privately-owned. In some areas, this figure reaches as high as nine out of every ten tube wells. However, the efforts of UNICEF and other humane organizations terribly backfired; their efforts to prevent disease precipitated the "world’s worst case of mass poisoning."
The main assumption made by aid organizations during the 1970s and 1980s was that by providing a source of safe drinking water, diarrhoeal diseases could be prevented. Not only did their programs introduce a new problem but also their efforts to significantly reduce the prevalence of diarrhoeal diseases failed. Dr. SA Ahmed writes:
The majority (64%) of the urban population and nearly all (93%) of the rural population have access to hand pumped or piped water. Despite this availability and promotion of such safe water sources, water-related diseases remain the major cause of mortality and morbidity in Bangladesh.
Public health experts now believe that in developing countries contaminated drinking water is not the main mode by which pathogens that cause diarrhoeal diseases are transmitted; rather, they believe that fecal-oral transmission of bacteria plays a more important role. The supplying of a bacteria-free source of drinking water alone is not enough; safe drinking water must be coupled with other mitigation methods such as an education campaign to promote proper hand-washing practices and thorough cleaning of water receptacles. Without entirely solving one public health hazard, Bangladesh and West Bengal unknowingly leaped into the problem of arsenic contamination.
Guidelines for Arsenic in Groundwater
As a result of the severe health effects of chronic arsenic poisoning, international and national organizations have set limits on the concentration of arsenic permitted in various environmental media. In addition to the guidelines of the World Health Organization, individual nations have also mandated a certain maximum permissible level of arsenic. The WHO maximum permissible level of arsenic in drinking water is 50 ppb, while the recommended value is 10 ppb. The current US maximum permissible level is 10 ppb; the Environmental Protection Agency is planning to reduce this level to possibly as low as 2 ppb. The limit in Bangladesh and India is 50 ppb although, needless to say, these two countries have not been able to attain this level.
To ameliorate and prevent the physical and psychological effects of arsenicosis, extensive arsenic mitigation programs are sorely needed. The three major components of mitigation include awareness-raising, screening of tube wells and patients, and implementation of short-term and long-term mitigation technologies. People’s participation in arsenic mitigation is imperative; thus, organizations must commit themselves to the task of awareness-raising. After all, only the villagers themselves can put pressure on their local governments to fulfill the duty of providing a source of safe drinking water. However, the scale of the problem, compounded by the isolation of many villages severely complicates the process of information dissemination. Problems of transportation are major impediments to communication. For many villages, during monsoon, waterways are the only mode of transportation to and from the area.
Awareness-raising must be coordinated with the provision of actual solutions. Telling people that their only source of drinking water is contaminated and that this situation is life-threatening creates panic. As Dr. Babar Kabir says:
You can’t go into a village and just screen. Say, as it has happened in many cases, that you have 100% of the tube wells contaminated. So one day people are very happily drinking from what they think to be safe sources and the next day an organization like BRAC or any other NGO, goes over and paints all the tube wells red because they’re contaminated far higher than the WHO or the Bangladesh standards. And they, the people, are left scratching their heads, "Where do we drink water from?"
People must be either given a safe source of drinking water or empowered to find a solution that fits their cultural and social needs.
The second component necessary for arsenic mitigation is screening and identification of contaminated tube wells and arsenicosis patients. The screening of over 4 million tube wells in the Bengal basin is an enormous task for any organization to undertake. Consequently, only pockets of Bangladesh and West Bengal have been completely screened. UNICEF Bangladesh, the organization with the largest arsenic testing program, has only been able to support the testing of 144,000 tube wells. To prevent repetition and alert people to the problem, contaminated tube wells have been painted red while safe wells have been marked with green.
The lack of appropriate measuring equipment seriously hampers a thorough screening program. Because of the extent of the arsenic problem, laboratory testing of water samples from all tube wells in the Bengal basin is not feasible. Laboratory testing is expensive and time intensive, and the Bengal area lacks appropriately equipped laboratories. According to UNICEF, "a private laboratory is charging about US$10 for a single arsenic analysis." Bangladesh and West Bengal are poor countries with numerous other social and environmental problems. Consequently, an accurate, cheap, and easily operated field test kit is a necessary technology.
A reliable field test kit capable of measuring arsenic at 50 ppb is not commercially available, although, spurred by the Bengal problem, many actors worldwide are searching for technology capable of meeting this challenge. Current commercially available field test kits can measure very high (>100 ppb) or very low (<20 ppb) levels of arsenic. However, for tube wells containing a level of arsenic just above or below the permissible limit of arsenic (50 ppb), these kits are useless. Further, organizations need a simple field-test kit since many programs depend on village health workers, uneducated village women, as the primary agents for measuring arsenic contamination. Currently, the combination of an inaccurate measuring device and human error is yielding a large margin of error in field test results.
Screening of villages for arsenicosis patients is an immense task. Local doctors must be trained to recognize signs of arsenicosis. However, active patient identification is also needed. Many organizations have again turned to village health workers to perform this function. This strategy not only empowers these women but also promotes greater community acceptance of mitigation strategies. Villagers are often more inclined to admit to signs of arsenicosis when queried by their own community members.
The final component of arsenic mitigation is the actual supply and implementation of arsenic mitigation technologies. Safe drinking water can be procured in three ways: treatment of well water before consumption, sinking of wells in arsenic free aquifers, and finally, use of surface water resources. Regardless of the type of technology employed, a common problem is that little is known about the practical application and long-term use of arsenic mitigation technologies. After all, the scale of arsenic contamination in Bangladesh is unprecedented. Knowledge concerning how to deal with widespread arsenic contamination is only now in the making.
Many arsenic-filtering technologies such as the three-kolshi filter, safi filter, and activated alumina have been designed to filter or adsorb arsenic from well water. These technologies all share one major problem—lack of suitable methods for disposing of arsenic-contaminated sludge. Once the arsenic had been transferred to another medium, the contaminated sludge must be transferred and contained somewhere. If not carried out properly, this process can lead to many more environmental problems.
Sinking of tube wells in arsenic-free aquifers is also a contentious issue. In Bangladesh and West Bengal the arsenic-free aquifer is the deep aquifer below 200 meters. In the 1998 study by the British Geological Survey, less than 1% of deep wells tested were found to contain unacceptable levels of arsenic. The observation of arsenic-contaminated deep wells may be due to improper installation of the deep tube well resulting in cross-contamination of aquifers. Some scientists in Bangladesh and West Bengal believe strongly that utilizing the deep aquifer is very dangerous mitigation option since there is a possibility of cross-contamination of the aquifers. Some scientists believe that over-exploitation of deep aquifer resources is a serious threat since this aquifer is not directly recharged by rainfall. In fact, deep groundwater studies of Rajastan, India, "have indicated that such water can be 6000 to 10,000 years old." The lack of laws regulating groundwater withdrawal in Bangladesh and West Bengal, together with the low recharge rate of the deep aquifer, is likely to result in over-exploitation of this resource.
Use of surface water and rainwater resources is a comparatively safer arsenic mitigation option. The Bengal basin has been blessed with an abundance of surface water and precipitation. West Bengal receives an average of 2,000mm of rainfall per year and possesses 4,000km2 of wetland, flooded river basins, and ox-bow lakes. This abundance of surface and rainwater has tremendous potential for fulfilling both the everyday and commercial water needs of the rural villagers. However, these resources must be properly managed. Pond sand filters and dug wells have been advocated in Bangladesh for the filtering of local pond water. PSFs and dug wells can supply safe drinking water for several households; rainwater harvesters that use rooftops to collect water are also an effective community-based solution. These community-based solutions rely on the commitment of the community to maintaining the technology, a commitment that is often lacking. Villagers are often unwilling to switch back to using surface water as a drinking water source after having learned over the past decades to see this source as polluted and unhealthy. Also, villagers are used to having their own individual household source of drinking water. Therefore, switching to a community source is often viewed as socially demeaning. Other surface water solutions that have been implemented include piping treated surface water to arsenic-affected areas. A piped water scheme can also be implemented using safe tube wells. Unfortunately, piped water schemes are often very expensive and require a long period of time to construct. Every mitigation option possesses advantages and disadvantages and often the optimal solution lies in a combination of various methods and technologies.
2. Setting the Scene for Crisis
Many innovative plans fail in practice because they overlook the reality of the local setting. For instance, the Khanna study, a family planning project in Manupur, India, made the mistake of assuming that population pressure was a recognized problem in the village when in fact large families were locally perceived as a necessary part of life in that unmechanized agricultural society. The most effective programs and policies, on the other hand, are those that work with the existing institutional structure, improving and shaping governments and NGOs to better handle future problems. In order to develop successful programs, understanding the history, strengths, and weaknesses of domestic organizations is essential.
Bangladesh and West Bengal were once one state within the vast Indian subcontinent. Ever since their tumultuous political and social histories tore them apart, these two areas have been forging their own unique identities, and consequently, their own distinctive institutions. In this chapter, we will examine environmental management first in Bangladesh prior to 1993 and secondly in West Bengal prior to 1978. By exploring this framework, we will discover key factors that must be considered when designing an environmental project in Bangladesh or West Bengal. And most importantly, we will come to understand the environmental institutions and their corresponding strengths and weaknesses that have set the scene for the arsenic crisis in the Bengal Basin.
Environmental Management in Bangladesh
Over the past fifty years, Bangladesh has undergone drastic political change. In 1947, Partition tore South Asia apart yielding the countries of India and Pakistan, present-day Bangladesh becoming the eastern half of the latter. Twenty-four years later, the bloody War of Liberation freed East Pakistan from oppressive and unequal rule by its western counterpart, creating the independent country of Bangladesh. However, independence did not guarantee political peace; constant strife and upheaval have defined Bangladesh’s politics as political parties fought to gain and maintain power. Today, the immobilizing ‘hartals’ are evidence of a state characterized by endemic political insecurity.
This instability, the "historic legacy of Bangladesh," has had a drastic effect upon the capacity of the national government to manage environmental problems. During Bangladesh’s existence as East Pakistan, the ruling elite harbored a deep distrust of democracy, a system of government that undoubtedly questioned their right to power. The Pakistani government was run without political institutions and process; this non-participatory governmental system not only destroyed the faith of the local people in their government, but also defeated the capacity of the government to deal with its social and environmental problems.
For the people of East Pakistan, the situation was even more frustrating than for their western brethren. West Pakistan was the center of Pakistani power while East Pakistan remained peripheral economically, politically, and culturally. As Sobhan comments, "both by constitutional design and political practice Bengalis were totally excluded from national power." The rulers of East Pakistan were puppets of the western center, accountable only to the Pakistani president. Geographically and politically estranged from the seat of power, the marginalized politicians and people of East Pakistan rebelled and, through the War of Liberation in 1971, gained their independence.
However, the politically destructive ideas stemming from Bangladesh’s rule under Pakistan poisoned liberation; the ruling elite of Bangladesh also quickly fell prey to the same vices as their predecessors. The constitution adopted in 1972 might have been adequate to allow the transparency, accountability, and public participation essential to a successful democracy; however, the struggle for power following the birth of the nation quickly usurped the integrity of constitutionalism in Bangladesh. For instance, the Second Amendment in 1973 to the Constitution granted complete emergency powers to the Prime Minister, a useful tool for controlling and suppressing opposition to the reigning government. The praiseworthy principles that formed the foundation of Bangladesh’s independence were quickly transformed and corrupted.
Furthermore, the Parliament, almost completely controlled by the Awami League party after independence, increasingly became a captive institution merely nodding to the programs and policies of the executive branch, fueling the growth of the Prime Minister’s absolute power. The Fourth Amendment in 1974 altered the parliamentary form of government to a presidential form in which the President, elected by the people, was given complete power. Since at that time the President had already become an all-powerful leader, this amendment did not significantly change the government’s actual functioning. Nevertheless, this official change to the Constitution confirmed the weakening of the judiciary and parliamentary branches and the absence of public participation in government. A result of the breakdown of constitutionalism and the construction of an omnipotent political leader in Bangladesh was a deep mistrust of the government by the people. Similar to the situation when Bangladesh was part of Pakistan, the people were alienated from the sphere of governmental politics.
Opposition, unable to find a voice through political institutions, manifested itself "on the streets, in the press, and finally in conspiracies in the cantonments". The rapid transformation of the Bangladeshi government to an institution of authoritarian control led to a politically and socially volatile atmosphere characterized by violence. In 1975, a military coup overthrew the Awami League government, assassinating Prime Minister Mujib and twenty-one of his family members and relatives. After fifteen years of martial law, a popular rising finally toppled the Ershad regime and in 1991, democracy was reinstated with the election of Khaleda Zia. Despite this promising turn of events, as Hossain writes, "Old habits die hard. The elected government began to behave in the same manner as had its predecessors." Afflicted with political insecurity and corruption, the current government has failed to gain the trust and support of the people.
Twenty-five years of neglect by Pakistan left Bangladesh severely underdeveloped; as a new nation in 1971, Bangladesh was devoid of an infrastructure - governmental, socio-economic, and physical. With the limited resources of a war-torn nation, the infrastructure created for the new country was inadequate to deal with its massive environmental problems, ranging from flooding to air pollution to deforestation. Until 1977, the Department of Public Health Engineering and the local government bodies were the only governmental institutions responsible for environmental management. This placement of environmental responsibility within the jurisdiction of a public health department shows that environmental problems were treated as peripheral to the more important problems of public health. Or rather, environmental problems were framed in terms of detriment to public health.
In 1977, environmental problems were finally designated an important issue by passing the Environmental Pollution Control Ordinance which created an Environmental Pollution Control Board and an Environmental Pollution Control Cell. However, the ordinance was very limited in scope, only including water and air pollution under the jurisdiction of the designated board and cell. The emphasis on pollution, a public health hazard, again shows that the conception of the environment had not yet expanded beyond the realm of the ‘human.’ The Board and Cell were merged in 1985 to form the Department of Environmental Pollution Control (DEPC) that was placed inappropriately under the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development (LGRD). As part of the LGRD, the DEPC did not have the capacity to truly enforce its regulations. The DEPC’s governmental position not only limited its geographical reach, but also its jurisdiction over other government entities.
The DEPC was composed of a small number of engineers and chemists who researched pollution from industry and vehicles and in a few instances, actually undertook pollution abatement measures. However, the DEPC overall was an inefficient organization unable to address much more than pollution. Not only was the placement of the DEPC under the LGRD inappropriate, but also the Department itself was understaffed and underfunded. Because of the weakness of the DEPC, enforcing pollution abatement strategies was a difficult task when dealing with comparatively stronger industries exerting a large influence on the bureaucracy.
The decade of the 1980s was a time of reorganization for the Bangladeshi government. First, the system of local government was reorganized between 1982 and 1984. The major result of the reorganization was that each upazila parishad, a state-like entity, could coordinate and implement its own infrastructure development and environmental management programs. Environmental management next underwent drastic restructuring during the 1980s. Jurisdiction over the environment was widely spread among a multitude of government ministries and departments. This decentralization often led to lack of integration and coordination of programs affecting the environment. In an effort to centralize environmental management, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) was created in August 1989. The Department of Environmental Pollution Control became the Department of Environment and was transferred to the new ministry. The Department of Forestry, possessing mainly a custodial role of managing forests, was also moved from its old designation under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forest to the new MOEF.
The MOEF was created with the express purpose of increasing government capacity to deal with environmental problems. The Department of the Environment became the "technical arm" of MOEF, principally responsible for environmental planning, management, and monitoring. The objectives of the new DOE were designed to increase the scope and depth of environmental management at the national level. New objectives including sustainable development of the country, conservation of natural resources, and creation of a healthy, meaningful living environment for all citizens, including the poor, signified a shift in the government’s thinking from short-term pollution control to long-term environmental health.
Despite these grandiose goals, the Department of Environment continued principally to manage pollution problems, following the footsteps of its precursor, the DEPC. Recognizing the limited effectiveness of the DOE, in 1992 the government expanded the mandate of the DOE to include "a stronger role in environmental impact assessment, and in formulating guidelines and advising line agencies involved in activities affecting soil and water conservation, aforestation, critical habitats, fisheries and other natural resources issues." The DOE at this time drafted a National Conservation Strategy, the National Environmental Policy, and the Environmental Action Plan and proposed a forestry master plan; these drafted and proposed policies complemented the already existing National Forest Policy (1979), the Industrial Policy (1991), and the Flood Action Plan. Despite this heightening of power on paper, the practical application of the mandates was limited. Environmental management continued to focus primarily on pollution control, the same focus that had existed since the 1970s.
The reconstruction of environmental management in Bangladesh was, for the most part, a structural change rather than the hoped for and much needed improvement of environmental management on the ground. The proper and effective functioning of the newly formed Department of the Environment was hindered largely by several major factors. First, the DOE was expected to oversee and coordinate all environmental programs run by the Bangladeshi government; however, the agency did not possess authority over other ministries and departments dealing with environmental regulation and legislation. Second, the DOE lacked legal power to enforce and implement environmental legislation; organizations and individuals ignoring the law could not be punished. As Rahman comments, in general, "Bangladesh has a fair number of environmental laws but the level of observance and enforcement capability is very low." Third, the MOEF and the DOE lacked the equipment and personnel needed to carry out their objectives. Although the ideas behind the formation of the DOE were promising, the reality of governmental incapacity negated the possibility of better environmental management.
Environmental management prior to the discovery of arsenic in 1993 was plagued by the lack of governmental capacity and the failure to integrate environmental efforts inside and outside the government. Despite the declaration of 1990 as the "Year of the Environment" and the 1990s as the "Decade of the Environment," many mandates remained unfulfilled. The dilution of power proved to be a major impediment. The inefficiencies of the government, rather than being ameliorated by well-designed environmental planning, were instead countered by the enlargement of the bureaucratic machinery. Too many departments were given the task of environmental management. For instance, in 1996:
Policies and programs pertaining to land and water resources are run by ten ministries, seven directorates/departments, and nineteen statutory bodies. Agricultural extension programs are handled by five ministries, eight directorates/departments, and four autonomous bodies. Environmental management programs are run directly and indirectly by sixteen ministries, thirteen directorates/departments, and thirteen other parastatal organizations.
Water resources development alone was under the jurisdiction of 35 government agencies. Because of this burdensome delegation of powers, the Department of Environment could not hope to perform its duties without conflicting with the jurisdiction of other departments. When in 1989 the governmental created the DOE, all significant environmental management should have been funneled into this agency.
Beside inefficient institutional arrangements, also the complete lack of accountability and transparency defeated the possibilities for successful programs. The complicated bureaucratic machinery left significant room for corruption. As Hamid comments:
The regulatory regime in Bangladesh entangles in a number of governance issues... The rules as followed by the bureaucrats are, in most cases, outdated, complicated, ineffective and provide no scope for monitoring, transparency and above all accountability.
Corruption, as in many developing countries, was and is a major impediment to the effective implementation of environmental policies and programs. The product of selfish interests, corruption was a blatant contradiction and obstacle to the altruistic goals of environmental protection. Thus, "corruption introduces an element of irrationality in all planning and plan fulfillment . . . [and] impedes the processes of decision making and execution on all levels." Institutional capacity suffered as well from more mundane deficits of knowledge and skills. Government staff lacked the appropriate training to effectively address the most pressing environmental problems. The 1992 Bangladesh Country Report to the United Nations called for "institutional strengthening" through the "strengthening and training of staff and management capacity in government to play a stronger advocacy and advisory role at a policy level." The majority of individuals in government agencies were trained "in traditional sectoral management with a short time planning horizon," an approach which often jeopardizes the environment. Effective people are needed for effective programs; without this prerequisite, building capacity is difficult and perhaps impossible to execute.
The government failed not only to address its own problems of capacity but also to utilize the competence of the strong non-governmental sector. Bangladesh is a country of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In 1992, approximately 13,000 NGOs were actively involved in development programs throughout Bangladesh; these projects concerned "agriculture, forestry, agro-forestry, fisheries, population control, rural works programme, health and nutrition, water and sanitation, non-agricultural income and employment generation activities and rural credit for poverty alleviation." NGOs in Bangladesh have found the yellow brick road to success – their size and scope have grown exponentially. Instead of harnessing this immense social capital, the Bangladeshi government stunted its own development by engendering an oppositional relationship with NGOs. Bhattacharya and Ahmed comment:
While the government in its major policy pronouncements continues to emphasize the need for NGO participation in the development process, various regulatory laws and multiple procedural bottlenecks remain in operation to control NGO activities. Admittedly these procedures have been simplified over time, particularly following creation of NGO Affairs Bureau, but the system remains cumbersome.
The government left the resource of a mobilized public untapped and thus, further hindered their own capacity to design and implement successful programs.
Why are NGOs so important to development? NGOs are not merely additional benefactors abetting government programs; in a country like Bangladesh, NGOs fill essential roles that the government cannot play or, for reasons of capacity, is not playing – in a sense, NGOs are building on failure. NGOs, unlike the government, may possess administrative and financial flexibility, organizational aptitude, creativity, and socio-political impartiality. Reaching to the grass roots, NGOs have the ability to target the needs and desires of the local people and mobilize the vast rural population. Most development projects organized by NGOs, although not specifically focusing on the environment, have direct implications for environmental management. For instance, large national NGOs such as Grameen Bank, Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), and Proshika designed and implemented innovative income-generating schemes to help the rural poor effectively utilize their natural resources. NGOs are an essential component of environmental management in Bangladesh.
However, NGOs lack certain crucial characteristics that only a government can possess. NGOs do not have the capacity to orchestrate their efforts to prevent overlap and repetition. As relatively small organizations recognized only by pockets of the population, NGOs cannot take on the immense task of organizing nation-wide environmental or social programs. And finally, unlike the government that possesses some internal revenue, NGOs are completely dependent on uncertain foreign aid to fuel their efforts. As Smillie says, "NGOs seldom know from one day to the next which donors are going to support them, for what reasons and for what period."
Because of the nature of NGO strengths and weaknesses, NGOs could have provided an excellent complement to the government. Elected by the people, government possessed, in theory, the geographic and social scope to create and coordinate far-reaching policies, while NGOs possessed the capacity and innovation needed for implementation. The 1992 Bangladesh Country Report to the United Nations recognizes the immense need for government-NGO collaboration, stating that "government intends to increase community participation in natural resource planning, management and development and to build partnerships with both NGOs and the private sector." However, the extent to which the government consciously pursued participatory processes and policies is questionable.
Foreign aid agencies also have played a major role in environment and development efforts in Bangladesh since the 1960s. In 1994, Bangladesh received 1.269 billion US dollars in development assistance, 4.8% of the country’s GNP. Amazingly, this sum is a drastic decrease from the amount of development assistance Bangladesh received during the 1980s. In lieu of mobilizing domestic resources and improving the yield of investments, Bangladesh has come to completely depend on foreign aid as practically the sole source of funding for development programs.
International aid for environmental programs prior to 1993 was supplied by a variety of organizations including the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the International Development Agency (IDA), the World Bank, and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The ADB, incorporating environment into its programs in the mid-1980s, focused projects on strengthening the technical capacity of the government through technical assistance programs. For instance, the ADB financed the provision of a building, lab equipment, and other necessities for the Department of Environment. The World Bank, joining the fight for environmental protection in the 1990s, organized programs concerning deforestation, energy, flood control, water supply and management, and institutional and legislative capacity. IDA programs similarly encompassed an array of environmental issues spanning from institutional capacity to water, forest, and energy management. The UNDP coordinated activities of UN-affiliated agencies including the World Food Program, FAO, the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, and UNEP. Many of these programs had large impacts on environmental management; for example, ESCAP and UNEP both were active in coastal and marine environmental problems, the former producing a profile report of coastal management in Bangladesh.
Bilateral development partners increasingly became concerned with environmental management in Bangladesh during the 1980s and 1990s. Some of the major bilateral development partners active in Bangladesh prior to 1993 include the United States through USAID, the Netherlands through DANIDA, Canada through CIDA, the Norwegian states through NORAD, France, Japan, Australia, and the UK. These partners were involved in a wide range of environment-related activities dealing with flood control, natural resources management, forestry, agriculture, inland fisheries, health, water management, and energy. In addition, many of these partners began incorporating environmental concerns into their development programs for population control, employment provision, and small-scale entrepreneurship.
Toward the beginning of the 1990s, bilateral development partners began to funnel aid through non-governmental agencies. This shift from government to NGOs was the result of the increased public participation encouraged by NGOs. Furthermore, NGOs were more apt at pursuing projects beyond the reach of the government, especially those of awareness raising and grassroots research.
As a result of tremendous amounts of funding from international aid agencies, Bangladesh has become politically and economically dependent upon foreign aid. For instance, over-pricing and over-designing of development projects has led to wasting of scarce resources, enrichment of intermediaries, and widespread corruption. The lack of surveillance of long-term development projects by both the government and donors has yielded a low return on investments and the failure of many projects. This low return has caused donors to tighten restrictions, increasing the conditionalities of funding. Slowly, by 1993, this process had led to complete control of the nation’s development policy by foreign donors, a situation that usurped the authority of the Bangladeshi government. However, as Sobhan asserts:
Aid dependence originated in our own failures of governance. It was really the incapacity of successive governments in Bangladesh to mobilize adequate resources and to use aid more efficiently which created the climate for growing dependence on outside donors.
Incapacity breeds further incapacity – Bangladesh has not been able to yank itself from the self-defeating cycle of external dependence.
Prior to 1993, major problems existed in the projects and programs supported by international aid agencies. One problem noted in the 1992 Bangladesh Country Report was the need for coordination of donor activities. Second, donor agencies were often forced to work inefficiently by the "need to push money quickly;" projects must be implemented and funds used before the optimal program can be designed. Third, despite the multitude of development programs in Bangladesh, several areas of environmental concern were being ignored: regional watershed management, sanitation and health, ambiguous status of land ownership, landlessness and land conflicts due to insufficient land utilization, destruction of inland capture fisheries, and strengthening of governmental institutions. Several areas of development with implications for the environment also required attention; these topics included family planning, women’s participation in development, and literacy.
Perhaps more important than the role of the government, NGOs, and aid agencies is the role of the local people in affecting environmental management. However, the Bangladeshi population is not well prepared to press for better environmental governance. Poverty is the main preoccupation of the vast majority; environmental risk is only peripherally considered, if at all. Ranking as one of the world’s poorest nations, Bangladesh and its people are faced with the challenge of balancing poverty and the environment. In 1994, eighty percent of the Bangladeshi population was below the poverty line. Although degradation of the environment has direct effects upon the Bangladeshi population, many are willing to endure and contribute to this destruction in exchange for low-wage employment, thus perpetuating a cycle of poverty and environmental degradation. The government, for its part, has failed to curb the growth of environment-polluting industries and utilize the massive work force for sustainable development.
People’s participation in the environmental effort generally was missing at local and national levels up through 1994, a situation that left the people’s knowledge of their problems untapped. As we shall see, utilizing the local people may in fact lead to innovative strategies for environmental protection since "the poverty stricken rural public has a tradition of frugal practices and indigenous knowledge which is often environmentally-sound." Although, in the early 1990s, non-governmental organizations had begun some interesting projects mobilizing the local people, in general the approach of the government and NGOs was top-down, overlooking the opinions of the poor who were being affected by development programs.
Environmental management in Bangladesh provides an interesting dilemma. The power of popular organization rather than the power of politics has been the factor determining development in Bangladesh. NGOs are certainly the most capable sector of the country and thus, the most equipped to handle problems such as arsenic. In the absence of a strong, participatory government, the mobilized, educated public has endeavored to serve the country through a vast and growing network of NGOs. Fueled by international funding, NGOs have dominated the development scene, creating and designing innovative programs. In stark contrast, the weak government structure, characterized by insecurity and corruption, has been incapable of implementing effective programs or utilizing the countries social capital. However, to ensure long-term sustainability, central governance is a requirement. In Chapter 3, we will explore the way arsenic mitigation and participating institutions have sought to confront or ignore this problem.
Environmental Management in West Bengal
During my travels in Bangladesh and West Bengal, I was struck by the contrasting humanscapes I encountered. The radiant greenery and vast surface waters were the same in both countries, but the way people had arranged themselves, particularly in urban centers, appeared uniquely different. Dhaka was a floating city of crowded buildings, tiny sidewalks, and rickshaws. In contrast, Calcutta was a hub of crumbling palaces, skyscrapers, and broad avenues. Only, the hordes of people, never-ending traffic, and unbearable pollution reminded me that these two cities were only a one-hour plane flight apart. Appropriately, environmental management in Bangladesh and West Bengal also demonstrates drastic differences and a few token similarities. To understand environmental management in West Bengal, we must briefly refer to India as a whole.
The culture of India has always fostered a deep respect and love for nature; for instance, the Vedas preach ‘integral humanism’ a concept which "expresses the oneness of the person with nature, the sense of kinship with different forms of life and institution, and the striving to reach harmony with nature in influencing and endlessly moving in a dynamic flow." Despite the cultural importance of nature, the environment was conspicuously absent from India’s development agenda before the 1970s. The environment did not become an significant political issue in India or in many other developing nations until after the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, also known as the Stockholm Conference. Soon after the conference, the National Committee on Environmental Planning and Coordination (NCEPC) was created to ensure that India’s pursuit of economic development would not unduly degrade the environment. Despite the limited technical success of the committee, the very institutionalization of the environment helped significantly to raise environmental awareness inside and outside the government, as evinced by the growth of a bureaucratic network as well as the emergence of over one hundred public interest groups throughout India during the 1970s. In the 1980 elections, the environment was on the agenda of every major political party. However, by 1979, the NCEPC had become large, diffusive and ineffective; major restructuring was needed to salvage environmental management in India.
In 1980, with the re-election of Indira Gandhi, the government renewed its attention to the environment. By combining various environmental components of departments and independent agencies, the government created the Department of the Environment (DOE) in 1981. The DOE was given a broad agenda:
To carry out environmental appraisal of development projects; to protect and conserve wildlife, to monitor and control air and water quality; to establish an environmental information system; to promote environmental research; and to sustain international cooperation.
Despite its intended scope, the department remained largely ineffective. Even on the most basic level, the DOE was insufficiently staffed to fulfill its responsibilities. The Department lacked the power of enforcement; rather, it served as merely an advisory committee whose advice could be easily ignored. The DOE was supposed to supervise other governmental agencies but its dearth of political power and financial support allowed other departments to easily override environmental regulations. As Khator comments, the DOE "was a ‘watchdog’ who had no bark."
In 1985, the government again tried to reconstruct environmental management in India by expanding and elevating the DOE to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MEF). The MEF is an elaborate organization composed of numerous branches and organizations whose duties range from setting emissions standard and conducting environmental impact assessments for new development to collecting and disseminating information regarding the environment. Although the creation of the MEF improved the standing of the environment as a policy issue, it failed to strike at the biggest problem facing environmental management in India - the weakness of environmental policies.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Parliament passed several important pieces of environmental legislation including the 1974 Water Act, the 1981 Air Act, and the 1986 Environment (Protection) Act. Although these policies strengthened environmental management in India, they left many loopholes in administration and enforcement. The laws permitted bureaucratic discretion and voluntary compliance, concepts that often led to disregard for environmental regulations. The vagueness of environmental laws and policies left ample room for business and industrial interests to use their political influence in evading the law. Similar to the situation in Bangladesh, MEF officers charged with the task of protecting the environment were rendered ineffective and powerless by the lack of strong, concrete policies; the words existed but not the mechanisms for implementing them.
State environmental governance in India did not escape the plague of political problems. Originally, environmental protection was characterized by decentralization of power. For instance, the Indian Constitution gave jurisdiction over water-related pollution to the states; the nation was largely excluded from the regulatory process. Not until 1960 did water emerge as a national issue that transgressed state borders. In 1962, the Ministry of Health organized a committee to study water pollution and offer suggestions of possible national legislation dealing with this topic. The fact that water pollution came to the attention of the Ministry of Health indicates the way in which environmental problems were largely framed as a public health hazard, a pattern we will see echoed in the treatment of arsenic-contaminated groundwater resources.
The Water Pollution Act of 1974 set up a system of state pollution boards under the jurisdiction of a central pollution board. Despite this institutionalization of pollution prevention, the effectiveness of the law was questionable. At the most basic level, the very scope of the Water Pollution Act greatly limited the state’s ability to confront water pollution problems. The law only allowed the state boards to act against pollution present in streams and wells; groundwater was not included under their mandate. Secondly, membership of the pollution boards was unclearly defined, leaving ample room for interest politics. As Bajwa comments, "The very undertakings against which the Board has to take action (industries in the private sector, State Government, companies, corporations, etc.) may be represented in the Board." Thirdly, the boards had no enforcement power and were compelled to litigate in the case of a violator. When dealing with industrial giants, the pollution control boards were barely even a threat. The Water Act was amended in 1988 but "still remains questionably effective."
The ability of the states to fight pollution decreased further with the introduction of the Air Act in 1981. Although this act showed escalated concern for air pollution, it institutionalized this concern ineffectively. The existing Water Pollution Control Boards of the states were given the task of additionally combating air pollution. However, as a result of the already under-staffed and under-funded condition of the state boards this new allocation of responsibility only hampered the effectiveness of pollution control. For instance, the pollution control boards were only able to visit industries once a year during which the industries would quickly close any polluting operations immediately before inspection. The end result was that "many of these Boards had become weak appendages of the respective Public Health Engineering Departments in the States."
The political weaknesses of state and central environmental management inevitably led to ineffective center-state relations. Policy was formulated by the central government while state pollution boards were expected to obtain their own resources for funding program and administrative costs. However, state environmental boards lacked adequate monetary resources to support either necessary staff or projects and thus, were relatively inactive. The centralized formulation of policies excluded the state governments from voicing the particular concerns of their localities, despite the figurehead presence of a state representative in the decision-making process. Consequently, environmental policies often disregarded the differing socio-economic and cultural contexts of various Indian states. The most detrimental result of the system was that the center and state were able to use the each other as scapegoats - when the state failed to implement environmental legislation it could blame the center for providing inadequate resources while the center could criticize the states for their implementation failures. Overall, the poorly balanced distribution of decision-making and implementation responsibilities led to a weak environmental protection program in India.
If the national government has neglected the environment, the state of West Bengal has marginalized it. The fact that the minister in charge of the environment is also responsible for youth affairs and tourism, two peripherally-related areas, shows that the environment has not been taken seriously. Transport, public works, and health and family welfare have all been given their own ministers; however, the environment has been thrown in with the ‘left-overs’. The Department of the Environment was established in 1990 to oversee, in theory, air, water, and industrial pollution. Environmental management in West Bengal has not expanded beyond pollution; like Bangladesh, the environment is linked to the realm of the ‘human.’ Furthermore, the emphasis on pollution is a tail-pipe solution; problems should be stopped before they even begin.
In reality, the DOE has played a minimal role; most of the literature on environmental projects in West Bengal refers to participation of the Pollution Control Board, a component of the DOE, or other departments. However, even the Pollution Control Board’s efficacy has been limited as a result of its lack of enforcement power. Laws exist for pollution control but implementation has been minimal. For instance, "if [existing] motor vehicle rules were implemented in Calcutta, 90% of cars could not run on the streets." People, assuming they are in the first place aware of the laws, are not afraid to break the laws because of the negligible consequences.
In a poor state like West Bengal, funding is a huge limitation for development and environment programs. The government has often designed innovative and technically advanced projects but has been unable to implement as a result of scarce resources. For instance, the 1985 Ganga Action Plan that implemented wastewater interception and treatment facilities in West Bengal has been criticized for its high cost. Dr. Dipenkar Chakraborti comments, "Wasn’t the erstwhile Ganga Project Directorate aware of the resource crunch? Don’t they know that we cannot afford energy-intensive electrical-mechanical schemes?" The government has often overestimated its abilities; more feasible, lower-cost solutions would have had better results than the capital-intensive projects that have been the paradigm of development in West Bengal.
Even when funds are available for development projects, the state government has repeatedly failed to mobilize resources. Development projects take twice as long to implement in West Bengal because of slow politics. For instance, Venkaiah Naidu berates the West Bengal government saying:
Last year the state government could spend only about Rs 460 crores out of a total allotment of Rs 870.34 crores which comprises only 53 per cent of the allocation. This year, the state government has spent even less and till date has been able to utilize Rs 130.35 crores against an available fund of Rs 524.87 crores from the Rural Development Ministry.
When funds are limited to begin with and problems are too abundant to comprehend, not utilizing funds merely portrays irresponsibility and lack of political motivation.
One of the major problems that has inhibited the implementation of effective environmental policy in West Bengal is a problem common to many developing areas as well as developed nations - corruption. To quell dissatisfaction and maintain power, the Left Front government of West Bengal turned to corruption. By 1993, "four-fifths of the state budget [was] going to pay the salaries of government employees whose support had been fostered by Left Front pay increments." Despite the widespread knowledge of political corruption, the environmental bureaucracy strives to portray itself as effective and successful through the use of false media. The government often exaggerates its accomplishments and hides its failures to give the impression that environmental protection in West Bengal is effective.
West Bengal, unlike Bangladesh, has not had the advantage of a mobilized public. Although the state does have a fair number of NGOs as well as one national NGO, the Ramakrishna Mission, environment and development programs have been dominated by government initiatives. Some NGOs have been involved in efforts to clean Calcutta and conserve wetlands, but in general their involvement has been negligible. Similarly, international aid organizations, although present in West Bengal, have played a minimal role. United Nations organizations have provided aid for emergency flood relief, but have only peripherally participated in long-term development schemes such as rural sanitation.
Consumed by poverty, the local people of West Bengal have had little time to devote to environmental causes. In general, awareness and knowledge about the environment is low. Furthermore, the multitude of environmental problems affecting the rural and urban poor remains unheard and unaddressed. The domination of the government by the middle classes and the minimal participation of the peasantry has resulted in a situation in which:
The beneficiaries of the Left Front have been the rural landed middle, the lower-level government employees and the capitalist class; the lower classes received what was already made available to them under previous governments or was being offered in other states under central-government funded programs.
The peasants of West Bengal have failed to organize a united front to articulate their complaints; rather, the current Communist government is the voice of the middle classes and the elite. The environment and development programs implemented have been top-down in approach, with little consultation of the affected populations. For instance, a cultural development program that affected tribals in the Sunderbans found that "a vast majority of the tribal folk remained unaware of the programmes and schemes adopted under the new strategy of development." A top-down approach is a double-edged sword - not only does this strategy ignore the particular needs of communities but it also undermines the effectiveness of the program itself by dint of excluding its supposed beneficiaries.
Overall, existing institutions in West Bengal provide a more depressing picture than those of Bangladesh; the government and most NGOs have shrunk from the task of environmental protection. Weak government commitment coupled by the dearth of social capital has created a stagnant situation for environmental management. Even when the government has shown initiative in designing programs, these programs have exceeded the capacity of the state and have consequently failed. Meanwhile, although it has a less capable government, Bangladesh possesses a wealth of civic associations pursuing altruistic goals. The contrasts between Bangladesh and West Bengal and their implications for capacity building of developing countries will be the topic of the following chapters.
3. A Weak State of Affairs
Arsenic calls for a total mind shift from the way things were done. In Japanese they say the character for danger is the same character for opportunity… in English, they call it the silver lining on a cloud. The silver lining on this cloud is the opportunity for the whole paradigm shift to occur. If it were just one district or one thana, you could come in on a limited basis, do something, and walk out. When you have to do the entire country, that means the whole development process must get involved. Everyone has his or her roles. The government alone can’t do it. External support agencies alone cannot help; we can pour money and nothing is going to happen. It has to be a partnership.
– Babar Kabir, World Bank
Each new day, each new problem provides us with a chance to learn. Over time, we expect our understanding of ourselves and our abilities to become more defined and accurate. So too, we hope that the organizations we form to manage our countries develop to yield better governance. However, in reality, we often see that the same deficits reoccur, constantly hindering the effectiveness of countries. Many times, institutions are unable to transform their weaknesses because they follow the path of others rather than forging their own identity. One model of capacity building cannot work for every country – each nation must recognize its own distinctive strengths and maximize these assets, shaping a culturally unique paradigm of development.
The arsenic problem is an example of the stagnant cycle in which many countries are trapped. Arsenic caught the world by surprise. Nearly 97% of the rural Bangladeshi people were believed to have a safe source of drinking water. Organizations had finally begun to see the light at the end of the tunnel when, to their frustration, a new darkness befell them. As institutions in Bangladesh and West Bengal have sought to address arsenic, their actions have simply mimicked the strengths and weaknesses of their development histories. Nevertheless, if we can now grasp the reality of arsenic management in the Bengal region, programs can be adjusted and reformulated to improve capacity.
Capacity of the National Government
Prompted by warnings from West Bengali scientists, the Bangladeshi government first responded to the arsenic contamination problem in 1993 by appointing an arsenic committee in the Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE) to test 33 tube wells in the region’s western districts. In May 1994, the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) organized an interdepartmental "Arsenic Review Committee" (ARC) to further investigate the findings of the DPHE. However, not until 1996 did the government create a National Steering Committee to research and mitigate the arsenic problem. Convened by the Minister of Health, the National Steering Committee and other arsenic-related committees were placed under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, although officials from various other government ministries formed the committees. Overall, these early governmental organizations were interested principally in the origins and extent of the arsenic problem; actual mitigation efforts were minimal. However, the National Institute for Preventative and Social Medicine (NIPSOM), an educational institution under the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, was one of the forerunners in arsenic mitigation efforts. As early as 1994, NIPSOM organized tube well testing, patient identification, and awareness-raising activities. In general, arsenic has been framed as a public health hazard rather than an environmental problem as evinced by the participation of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Directorate General of Health Services, and the Department of Public Health Engineering. The Department of Environment has been minimally involved with arsenic mitigation programs.
Currently, the DPHE is the government organization most involved with arsenic mitigation since it is the only agency with experience in water and sanitation. Prior to the discovery of arsenic, the main function of the DPHE was to supply villagers with a safe source of drinking water. The DPHE, in collaboration with various aid agencies, particularly UNICEF, installed shallow tube wells throughout rural villages to reduce the fatal effects of fecal contamination. However, when in the 1980s, arsenic was discovered in the very same tube wells the DPHE had dug the decade before, the department was expected to undertake the responsibility for arsenic mitigation.
When I visited the DPHE office in Dhaka, I was astonished at the sparse surroundings. One large, gray room contained a few scattered, empty desks where three or four employees lounged – the room resembled a warehouse more than an office. Only the chief engineer’s small compartment piled with books and papers told me that I had actually reached the right place. The physical appearance of the DPHE headquarters is indicative of the decentralized organizational structure of the department. Despite capacity-building efforts on the part of UNICEF, the World Bank, and other international aid organizations, the DPHE has maintained mostly an in-the-field role. Only the chief engineer has participated in the formulation and organization of arsenic mitigation programs. In general, sub-assistant engineers (SAEs) in the localities have been commissioned with the task of testing the level of arsenic in tube wells and participating in any mitigation efforts within their geographical jurisdiction. NGOs conducting mitigation programs in rural villages have attempted to involve DPHE SAEs in mitigation activities. However, as BRAC states in the 2000 report of its arsenic mitigation program, "the SAE [of Sonargaon] had time constraints and was not always available." The involvement of SAEs has varied from one district to the next depending upon the commitment of the individual engineer.
Local government bodies such as the Union Parishad (UP) also have played a peripheral role in mitigation efforts. Under the World Bank’s recent program, local governments will be expected to play a stronger role in mitigation; however, this has yet to occur. The other major government body that has become involved with arsenic mitigation is the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Reflecting its health interests, the Ministry and its associated departments and institutes have focused on training doctors, patient identification, and treatment, as well as research on the health effects of arsenic. Although the Ministry of Health has been comparatively more active than the DPHE in designing and implementing programs, no government agency has assumed full responsibility for arsenic mitigation.
The existence of the arsenic problem and many difficulties related to implementing mitigation strategies are tied to the infrastructural weaknesses of the central government. The central government lacks the money, technology, and personnel needed to effectively manage issues of environment and public health. For instance, DPHE chief engineer Dr. Iteshemul Huq admits that when arsenic was first discovered:
We didn’t have any facilities to test arsenic in groundwater. Only the Atomic Energy Commission in Bangladesh had these facilities and we collected the samples and tested there. In 1995, the WHO provided some facilities to test arsenic in DPHE laboratories. We have four laboratories.
Despite the desire of numerous governmental and non-governmental organizations to perform blanket testing of all tube wells in Bangladesh, the dearth of public or private laboratories to monitor water quality is a major impediment to testing efforts. As the WHO pointed out in 1997, "an institutional framework needs to be developed for regular water quality surveillance and control in rural and peri-urban areas." Because this framework has never existed in Bangladesh, the quality of drinking water has been and will continue to be an uncertainty. The government’s lack of administrative expertise is another severe hindrance to arsenic mitigation. For example, although the DPHE has been designated the nodal agency in UNICEF’s arsenic mitigation program, it is little more than a collection of engineers trained to install and test tube wells. Department staff does not possess the skills to coordinate and design pollution mitigation programs.
In a country literally flooded with environmental and developmental problems, the Bangladeshi government has come to depend largely on international aid to fuel its economy and provide its people with the basic needs of life. Because the government is incapable of managing all problems facing the country, various departments have become appendages of international aid organizations that utilize these departments to run their development programs. Also, because the impetus for the creation and organization of arsenic mitigation programs has often come from aid agencies such as UNICEF and the World Bank, the government has lacked initiative in efficiently managing and allocating funds. Corruption has become a serious impediment to success.
In order to find a long-term, equitable solution to the problem of arsenic-contaminated drinking water, the central government must take a more active role in planning mitigation that is compatible with the cultural and political setting of Bangladesh. The government, elected democratically by the people, is the only organization in the country that has the legal right and jurisdiction to implement a large-scale mitigation program in Bangladesh. As UNICEF’s Shafiq Islam comments, "BRAC and Grameen - they are there so long as we provide assistance. If we do not give them assistance, they will pull back. But the DPHE will be there." The government is a permanent entity and cannot avoid a problem as large as arsenic. A sustainable program inevitably involves the government as a key player.
Despite the numerous inefficiencies that currently exist in government efforts, the government has tremendous potential for better environmental management. The network of local government in Bangladesh could provide an excellent infrastructure for a comprehensive arsenic mitigation program if the capacity of local government is increased and the central government assumes a more central coordinating role. Also the nation-wide network of Upazilla Health Complexes run by the Directorate General of Health Services could be utilized more effectively for patient identification and treatment. The lack of coordination of NGOs and the government is also a major impediment. The government must serve as the nodal agency of arsenic mitigation efforts and in such a way, fully utilize the capacity of the NGO sector.
Capacity of International Aid Agencies
International aid agencies are essential to development in Bangladesh. Every year, huge sums of money from international aid organizations flow into Bangladesh through the government and the hundreds of NGOs dotting the country. The aid of international agencies, such as the United Nations and the World Bank, is necessary to orchestrate development programs since the government and the Bangladeshi people often lack the necessary monetary resources. Aid organizations have been involved in a variety of programs in Bangladesh ranging from education to sanitation to flood relief.
International aid agencies have assumed an integral role in arsenic mitigation efforts throughout Bangladesh largely as a result of their inadvertent contribution to the problem. Prior to the 1980s, the majority of the Bangladeshi population used surface water as their main source of drinking water. Humans and animals used this water source for a variety of purposes including bathing and sanitation, thus leading to severe contamination of drinking water and a high rate of mortality from diarrhoeal diseases and cholera. To combat the problems caused by improper sanitation, UNICEF and other aid agencies helped the government install a large number of shallow tube wells. The collaboration between UNICEF and the government "sank 1 million tube wells; 2.5 million to 3 million more were installed privately, some with loans on easy terms from other aid agencies." These efforts were extremely successful in precipitating a major behavioral change. Local people began using groundwater instead of surface water as their main source of drinking water. However, UNICEF and other agencies failed to conduct a comprehensive examination of groundwater quality – an oversight that has indirectly resulted in millions of people drinking arsenic-contaminated water.
The international community failed to respond quickly to the arsenic problem. In 1994, Dr. Dipenkar Chakraborti alerted UNICEF and WHO officials of the possibility of arsenic contamination in Bangladesh; however, the problem was largely ignored. Now, aid agencies, feeling responsible for the arsenic contamination problem, are compensating for their tardy response through the implementation of numerous large arsenic mitigation programs. The two most extensive programs are UNICEF’s Action Research into Community Based Arsenic Mitigation and the World Bank’s Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation Water Supply Project (BAMWSP). Numerous other international organizations, including United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the British Geological Survey, WHO, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), are carrying out smaller programs and research projects in collaboration with the government.
The World Bank’s Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation Water Supply Project is the most extensive and ambitious program being attempted. In 1998, the World Bank agreed to loan US$ 44.4 million to support the government’s Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation Water Supply Project (BAMWSP); BAMWSP was designed to coordinate nationwide arsenic mitigation through "community-based, demand driven projects, in which community members play an active role in choosing and implementing solutions to the site-specific problems of arsenic contamination." A major focus of BAMWSP was to design a program with short-term and long-term implications. The people in the 4,000 villages and 64 municipalities affected by the project were expected to play a key role in mitigation efforts, contributing 40% of mitigation costs. BAMWSP also created a national database and informational center, the National Arsenic Mitigation Information Center (NAMIC), to collect and disseminate information regarding all organizations involved in mitigating arsenic. This database and informational center are still under construction. Run mainly by government officials, BAMWSP was organized and is recognized as the nodal agency for arsenic mitigation.
The structure of the World Bank program drastically differs from UNICEF’s approach. While UNICEF has chosen to utilize the capacity of Bangladesh’s large national NGOs, the World Bank has chosen to mobilize the hundreds of small grassroots NGOs locally situated in arsenic-affected villages. The World Bank program focuses largely on building the capacity of the central and local government to design and implement participatory programs. In order to build an infrastructure for arsenic mitigation, BAMWSP involved the creation of a central office, the Project Management Unit (PMU), staffed largely by government officials, particularly from the DPHE, and a Project Steering Committee given the task of supervising the PMU. In rural areas, community-based organizations (CBOs) in charge of local mitigation were created in conjunction with local NGOs; these CBOs were intended to become sub-committees of the Standing Committees of the Gram Parishad, the local governmental body. BAMWSP sought to construct a new governmental infrastructure through its network of PMUs and CBOs, a worthy goal on paper but an extremely difficult one to achieve in reality. By 1998, BAMWSP had become a management nightmare. As a result of its inefficiencies, the World Bank is currently restructuring the project.
Currently, UNICEF is implementing the most effective large-scale arsenic mitigation program in Bangladesh. During Phase 1 of its Action Research into Community Based Arsenic Mitigation, lasting from June 1999 to January 2000, UNICEF implemented mitigation programs in four districts in collaboration with the Department of Public Health Engineering and three large NGOs, Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), Grameen Bank, and Dhaka Community Hospital (DCH). Grameen Bank and DCH were each in charge of one district while BRAC implemented programs in two districts, Jhikorgaccha and Sonargaon. The intention of UNICEF’s program was to research people’s response to various methods of mitigation in order to evaluate their effectiveness. Because of the project’s research orientation, the mitigation technologies were implemented without any cost to the people.
One major constraint reducing the effectiveness of international aid agencies is the lack of government capacity. International aid agencies have the mandate to work with government. In the case of Bangladesh, none of the government departments are adequately staffed or organized to handle the gravity and scope of the arsenic contamination problem. Thus, internationally funded projects and programs are constructs of the funding agencies; the role of the government in formulating programs is very limited. The design of the UNICEF project was intended to fill the gap left by the failures of BAMWSP. As the Project Proposal states:
The BAMWSP calls for community-based arsenic mitigation projects, but very little work has been done on actually designing or implementing these projects. This project is being designed with the World Bank objectives in mind….
Although UNICEF’s program succeeded in providing safe drinking water to four districts, UNICEF ignored the need to increase the capacity of the central government by almost completely funneling efforts through large NGOs.
International aid agencies have taken most of the responsibility for designing and coordinating arsenic mitigation programs, thus permitting the government to shirk the country’s problems. Filling the gap left by the lack of governmental capacity, international aid agencies have become a pseudo-government in Bangladesh, at least in terms of arsenic mitigation. Aid agencies in Bangladesh must begin to develop programs that build governmental capacity; however, several aspects inherent in the structure of aid agencies have prevented effective fulfillment of this goal. International agencies need to use funds quickly. The headquarters of the agencies often dictate when and how funds must be used, although the field offices are much better equipped to evaluate the possibilities for project design and implementation. The need to accommodate directions from headquarters often leads to the creation of less than optimal programs. Further, because aid agencies must safeguard their financial interests, they often impose too many restrictions on recipients. In designing projects and programs, international aid agencies must carefully strike a balance between delineating the duties and responsibilities of participating organizations to allow flexibility for these organizations to shape their own programs.
The problems facing international agencies in Bangladesh will be difficult to solve. Building governmental capacity is a long-term problem. Programs can and should be altered to place more responsibility upon the government. In general, dialogue must be improved between the headquarters and field offices. Programs and deadlines must be set by the field offices in order to construct activities appropriate for and effective in their cultural and social setting. Furthermore, the field offices themselves must improve collaboration with the NGOs and government agencies in order to truly optimize the attributes of participating organizations. Competition between international aid agencies is also an issue inhibiting the progress of mitigation. UNICEF and the World Bank are both actively involved in arsenic mitigation efforts, yet dialogue between these two agencies is insufficient. More effective collaboration is integral to solving development problems in a country such as Bangladesh that is heavily dependent upon international aid.
Capacity of Large Non-Governmental Organizations
Bangladesh is a country of non-governmental organizations; NGOs come in all sizes and shapes, each with different focuses and interests. Apart from the hundreds of local, small NGOs, several large nation-wide NGOs play a major role in shaping the development of this country. In many areas, they have complemented governmental programs while in others they have actually surpassed the government. Staffed by citizens committed to improving their country, these large NGOs have organized successful programs from education to sanitation to family planning.
Large NGOs have played an especially important role in mitigation efforts. Like the central government, these NGOs have an extensive infrastructure reaching many localities throughout Bangladesh. Using their networks, large NGOs have undertaken significant arsenic mitigation programs. For instance, because BRAC already had an extensive network of field offices as a result of its non-formal primary education programs, the addition of arsenic mitigation programs was a relatively easy task. UNICEF, as said previously, has been a key organization in coordinating the work of large NGOs.
BRAC has concentrated its efforts in two districts, Sonargaon and Jhikorgachha. Although the main purpose of BRAC’s "Action Research into Community-Based Arsenic Mitigation" was to assess the viability and community acceptance of various mitigation technologies, BRAC has undertaken a comprehensive program that includes testing of tube wells, screening of patients, awareness raising, implementation of technologies, and treatment of arsenicosis victims. Although BRAC has experimented with various types of technologies, it has mainly relied on the implementation of household arsenic removal techniques, especially the 3-kolshi filter. The ease of use and the low construction and maintenance cost have made household solutions the most effective choice, at least in the short-term.
Despite their growth and progress, large NGOs in Bangladesh have certain serious problems. One of the major challenges is the inability of large NGOs to coordinate long-term, countrywide programs. Despite their extensive networks of field offices, NGOs such as BRAC, Proshika, and Grameen Bank are limited by several factors. Unlike the government, these large NGOs are almost completely dependent on external aid. Thus, the extent and scope of their programs may vary yearly depending upon the availability of funds. As private organizations, they do not have the legal jurisdiction and popular support to implement extensive, countrywide programs. Further, the projects and research of NGOs often last for only a short period of time agreed upon between the NGO and the donor agency. After this time has expired and research is complete, the NGO often leaves the area of concern creating public disillusionment with NGOs and donors.
Although NGOs lack certain characteristics that can only belong to a central government, large NGOs in Bangladesh have become in many ways an alternative form of government. For instance, BRAC’s non-formal primary education program far exceeds the effectiveness of government education programs. Rather, than complementing government programs, large NGOs have taken on responsibilities that are normally seen as public functions. A major role of NGOs is to pressure the government to fulfill its obligations to its citizens; ironically, however, the very effectiveness of NGOs has allowed the government of Bangladesh to ignore its own capacity problems.
The size of NGOs in Bangladesh also comes with its own suite of problems. Often, NGOs in Bangladesh begin to resemble corporations with the top executive rarely venturing out into the field, orders traveling from headquarters to field offices, programs being run quickly in order to maximize output. One of the attributes of NGOs is their ability to mobilize the people and truly understand grassroots concerns; however, NGOs such as BRAC and Grameen Bank have become more distanced from the grassroots over time. Furthermore, with the growth in size and manpower, large NGOs have become less accountable and transparent. Corruption is often as common in NGOs as in the government.
Although large NGOs in Bangladesh are making a significant contribution to Bangladeshi society, their full potential has yet to be realized. The most conspicuous way in which to maximize the utility of large NGOs is to increase their dialogue and interaction with the government. The government has the ability to reach the whole population while large NGOs have the proven capacity to design and implement successful programs. However, enmity between the government and NGOs prevents effective collaboration. Large NGOs should not only pressure the government to meet the people’s needs but also work with the government to strengthen its capacity and in this way, achieve a long-term positive result for society as a whole.
Capacity of Small Non-governmental Organizations
Bangladesh is also filled with many small NGOs who are involved with numerous aspects of development. These NGOs can play and are playing a major role in arsenic mitigation efforts. Unlike large NGOs, small NGOs have the advantage of being located within or near the very community for which they are devising programs. Thus, they are better able to evaluate the needs and responses of local communities. Also, they are more accountable to the local people. Because small NGOs do not need to service a large area in a fixed amount of time, they have the flexibility to introduce innovative arsenic mitigation techniques and programs.
Currently, small NGOs are involved in arsenic mitigation efforts in several ways. First, they are independently implementing programs in various localities. Secondly, some small NGOs are focusing specifically on a certain facet of arsenic mitigation. For instance, when I was visiting a village, I met a five-person NGO called Expressions, Ltd., that was researching and designing community awareness raising techniques and materials for distribution and use by other NGOs. Finally, the World Bank program, BAMWSP, is collaborating with an array of small NGOs throughout the country to implement its arsenic mitigation plan.
Despite the advantages of small NGOs, their size also presents a number of problems. Small NGOs are only able to service a limited area. Thus, in order to make the actions of small NGOs relevant at a nation-wide level, major coordination efforts are required. BAMWSP has attempted to harness the power of small NGOs but has failed through lack of technical and infrastructural capacity. Because small NGOs operate very independently, any knowledge and experience gained through their programs is often lost at the grassroots. This information should ideally travel to larger NGOs, government, and international aid organizations. The lack of information exchange is also resulting in replication of experiments and overlapping of efforts. Dr. Bilqis Hoque comments
You find many areas in this country where development work is happening and in that particular area, there are five NGOs or ten NGOs with more than one donor agency supporting them. For some reason, they are all going to that one area. And then there is another area that needs equal or more support, but there is no one there.
Better coordination and communication are needed between all players to ensure efficient allocation of resources and energy.
Some of the problems facing small NGOs involved in arsenic mitigation can be easily solved through significantly improved information sharing and cross-institutional collaboration. One of the goals of BAMWSP was to create a website of information about arsenic including the activities and programs of all involved organizations. However, the result has failed to provide a sufficiently detailed and helpful database. An information center addressing the questions of "who is doing what and where?" would significantly improve the effectiveness of arsenic mitigation nationwide by pointing out areas of concern and the variety of existing programs and methods for arsenic mitigation activities. Small NGOs need to increase their interaction with the central government and large NGOs. In particular, small NGOs should work in greater collaboration with local governmental bodies and, in this way, build the capacity of local government. BAMWSP has attempted to build this bridge but requires an effective mechanism for success.
People are an essential part of a successful democracy. The definition of democracy as ‘rule by the people’ mandates that the public take an active interest in the affairs of the state. Ideally, the affairs of the state should be those of the people. The public must be actively involved in informing their elected representatives of their concerns. In the context of arsenic, communities need to play an instrumental part in mitigation efforts while pressuring their local government bodies to meet their need for safe drinking water. As Dr. Dipenkar Chakraborti says, "If the child does not cry, the mother will not feed the baby. So the child should cry."
The people can also find a forum for their concerns in the non-governmental sector. Local communities affected by these programs should provide input to NGOs to better assess the effectiveness of their programs. Further, communities should become actively involved in designing development programs for their towns and cities. NGOs have sought to involve local communities in their mitigation programs; for instance, BRAC convened village meetings at various stages of their program in order to share information with the community and obtain their ideas and preferences. This type of dialogue should be augmented.
Local communities have been relatively absent from politics of arsenic. Much of the impetus for addressing the arsenic problem has stemmed from the concern of NGOs and the international community. Consequently, most of the mitigation programs have been the result NGO/international aid organization efforts. Local communities have become involved in some of these programs; for instance, BRAC’s ‘Action Research into Community-Based Arsenic Mitigation’ program employs women with limited or no literacy as village health workers (VHWs). They are given the task of measuring the arsenic content of tube well water, identifying arsenicosis patients, and raising awareness. Communities are much more likely to trust and follow the advice of their own members rather than individuals from outside organizations.
However, many obstacles remain in the path of public participation. First, the public suffers from a lack of awareness of the issue. Arsenic is an invisible poison. Unlike iron, arsenic does not physically change the appearance of water. Furthermore, clinical signs of arsenicosis often take years to appear; whole communities can be drinking arsenic-contaminated water without even one person displaying any noticeable signs of arsenicosis. Because of the hidden nature of the problem, villagers as well as educated professionals in rural areas often devise false explanations for signs of arsenicosis.
Because of the invisibility of arsenic and preliminary stages of arsenicosis, people often respond skeptically to education and mitigation. For decades the public has been told that they should switch to using groundwater resources because the surface water is contaminated and, now, after learning to depend upon groundwater resources, people are being told that their groundwater is contaminated. Unable to see this supposed contamination, people respond negatively to mitigation efforts. In one area, "the government recently sealed 8 contaminated wells only to have the villagers undo the work." People do not understand how a tube well can be contaminated when only one person drinking from it shows signs of arsenicosis while others are healthy. Not surprisingly, some people believe that arsenic contamination is a construct of pipe companies who are simply trying to increase profits by installing deeper tube wells.
Not only is arsenic mitigation complicated by the nature of the problem, the existing technologies also make mitigation more problematic. In many instances, the remedy offered for arsenic mitigation is a community solution; either a village is told to share one or two safe tube wells or a filtration device such as a pond sand filter is constructed and several families are advised to share this source of clean water. However, reconstructing water as a community resource is a difficult task after households have become accustomed to having their own source of clean water. Ownership of individual tube wells has become a sign of affluence. One man severely suffering from arsenicosis claims "If I die, I will die, but I will not go fetch water from another man’s house."
A final obstacle to public participation in mitigation efforts is the lack of responsibility felt by communities. Communities and individuals feel that international aid agencies, NGOs, and the government should solve the problem. However, public participation is essential to solving the arsenic problem in the long-term. This goal must be achieved through extensive education and awareness raising efforts. Since the discovery of arsenic, the government, realizing that it does not possess the capacity to deal with the problem, has sought minimize panic by hiding the severity of arsenic contamination. However, as the Disaster Forum points out, "Unless those who are at risk know what to do, little can be done to improve the situation. It’s also their right to know." The government must improve communication with local communities. Once the people are aware of the problem, they should take greater initiative in helping the government to address their needs. Currently, many mitigation technologies are being provided at no cost by NGOs. Because communities do not share the financial burden of arsenic mitigation, they often do not take responsibility for maintaining the technology. Communities must share in the cost of implementing mitigation technologies if a community-based solution is sought.
4. The Failure of Governance
As the world has turned its attention to arsenic, Bangladesh has occupied the spotlight. Organizations have rushed to the aid of this poor country and in the process, overlooked its western neighbor silently suffering since 1978. In West Bengal, an estimated five million people are at risk of arsenic poisoning. Over 150,000 tube wells exist in arsenic contaminated areas of which, by 1998, only 10,000 had been tested. Much remains to be done and much is at stake.
Shaped by a history of central governance, West Bengal has taken a vastly different approach to arsenic management than Bangladesh. The disparities of arsenic mitigation in these two geographically and environmentally similar places are indicative of the strengths and weaknesses of their existing institutions. Each country has sought to build on its capacities, but in the process, has failed to build new capacity. Tunneling along their respective paths to safe water, Bangladesh and West Bengal have forgotten that their misery is shared. Each has mastered one part of the puzzle. Now, to complete the picture, they must find ways of working together.
Capacity of the State Government
Unlike its Bangladeshi counterpart, the West Bengal government has assumed the nodal role as initiator, coordinator, and implementer of arsenic mitigation activities. The state has played an important part since 1982 when the School of Tropical Medicine, Calcutta, identified the first arsenicosis patients. The School and the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, two state-run government educational institutes, conducted epidemiological studies during the 1980s in order to determine the effect of arsenic on human health; however, organized mitigation did not begin until 1988.
The various governmental committees that have been convened to deal with the issue demonstrate that the West Bengali government has treated arsenic contamination with attention and concern. In 1988, the state government convened a steering committee to research further the problem of arsenic contamination. This steering committee was composed of representatives from the state and central governments as well as research institutions. Although this first committee proposed various recommendations, very little action was taken in terms of actual mitigation. An expert committee was convened in 1992 to continue the work of the steering committee. Again, this committee offered comprehensive recommendations but failed to design an effective mechanism by which to employ them. After the expert committee submitted its recommendation in 1994, an arsenic Task Force was organized by the Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) to oversee all activities related to arsenic; however, after 1997 this committee became practically defunct, most of the powers for arsenic mitigation being devolved to the PHED.
Despite the fact that many of the recommendations and solutions presented by the committees have yet to be fulfilled, the government, specifically the PHED, has undertaken a variety of large-scale research and mitigation projects with the help of central government funding. The first major initiative to combat arsenic contamination began in May 1988 when the state government approached the central government with a $23,000 project to study the cause and extent of arsenic contamination as part of the central government’s National Drinking Water Mission (NDWM). Since then, the Government of West Bengal has designed two major action plans involving mostly long-term mitigation measures. The first phase action plan, submitted to the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India in 1993, involved replacing a number of arsenic-affected tube wells, constructing a piped water supply scheme, and sinking spot tube wells. To meet the high capital investment required by this plan, the central government agreed to pay 75% of the costs, with the state government funding the remainder. In 1999, the state government estimated that 314,000 people had been given a safe source of drinking water as a result of this action plan, though the actual number is debatable. Currently underway, the Second Phase Action Plan prepared in 1995 involves the installation of tube wells, ring wells, and piped water supply schemes. Even then, "about 66% of the total 1991 population in arsenic affected blocks and municipalities identified up to September 1995 in the districts of Murshidabad and Nadia will remain uncovered upon completion." While seeking help from the national government to fund arsenic mitigation programs, the West Bengal government has used its own financial resources to further a limited number of short-term and long-term mitigation strategies. For instance, an arsenic removal plant has been installed at Sujapur in the Malda District and various types of deep tube wells have been installed throughout the countryside.
In addition, the state has carried out extensive research efforts through its affiliated public health organizations including the All India Institute for Hygiene and Public Health, Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine and the Institute for Post-Graduate Medical Education and Research. These organizations have engaged in a variety of activities ranging from tube well testing and water analysis to the design of arsenic mitigation technologies to epidemiological studies and treatment. The Directorate General of Health Services has been given the responsibility to carry out epidemiological studies and arsenicosis awareness and treatment programs. By contrast, the government’s environmental institutions have played a minimal role in the arsenic problem. For instance, the Department of Environment and the West Bengal Pollution Control Board have been absent from arsenic-related matters although their mandate would seem to indicate that they should play a major role in such activities. Few government agencies other than PHED are actually involved in extensive mitigation programs.
Admirably, the state government is looking to the future, seeking long-term solutions to the problem of arsenic contamination. However, these long-term solutions require more money than either the state or federal government can afford to contribute. As UNICEF Calcutta comments, "Implementation proceeds depending on the availability of funds. In this way, it will take years before remote villages are supplied with water free of arsenic." The state government must look for other funding sources or mitigation technologies in order to supply clean water to its people in the short term. Arsenic is an immediate threat to public health and should be treated with emergency measures. While Bangladesh has failed to implement long-term measures, West Bengal has largely ignored the need for short-term mitigation.
The capacity of the state government to implement effective mitigation programs has been seriously hampered as well by its failure to mobilize non-governmental organizations. Since the government has taken on the responsibility of arsenic mitigation, it must also assume the responsibility for utilizing the capacity of non-state actors. Many of the plans for state water supply projects refer to "active support of NGO’s… for awareness building" although, in practice, NGOs have mainly been employed in research-oriented projects rather than in-the-field arsenic mitigation activities. The few NGOs that have become involved in arsenic mitigation activities have done so at their own initiative and also at their own expense. Nevertheless, the government has realized its weakness. Mr. Bikash Poddar, scientist at a Calcutta-based NGO, says:
In the beginning, the government did not believe very much in NGO-support. They, as a Marxist state, believed the government must be more important than NGOs. But slowly they are changing their ideas. They find that actually the government by itself cannot do all the work so they are now slowly accepting that NGOs have got a role to play.
Despite this promising outlook, very little has been actually done on the government’s part to increase NGO involvement. Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi government has taken the opposite approach of allowing NGOs to dominate mitigation completely.
A major mistake of the West Bengal government has been to suppress information concerning the extent and severity of the problem. Dr. Chakraborti, Director of the School of Environmental Studies, says:
The government recognized the problem during 1982. But they did not speak the truth, even now they are not speaking the truth. We see the last report of Ashesh Ray, he said that 450 people were suffering from arsenicosis, I think it is actually 400,000. They realize the problem but they do not speak out. Most probably they know they will not be able to manage it.
The attempt to diminish the problem in the hopes of avoiding mass panic has only added to the sluggish pace of addressing it. People, moreover, have a right to know that their water poses a threat to their health. Although much of the rural population of West Bengal is poor and cannot afford to install expensive arsenic treatment facilities or fund the installation of a piped water supply scheme, they can make short-term decisions to decrease their risk of arsenicosis.
The government’s approach to managing the arsenic problem has largely been top-down. The state government has designed implementation strategies with little local input. Dr. Tanveer Ahsan of the World Bank Bangladesh office encapsulated the situation:
West Bengal took an approach at the beginning of central intervention… The central body was involved in water supply. They came in, they already had the solution in mind, and they just installed it. There was not too much community involvement. For Bangladesh it was different. From the beginning the community has been the main driving force.
Although the low level of public awareness prevents many communities from making a significant contribution to arsenic mitigation planning and implementation, even the limited input made by local people is often ignored. Gurchandran Ari, a villager exclaims, "Several times we had tried to tell government officials about arsenicosis, but government officials did not believe that the disease was from groundwater arsenic. They believed that it came from forefathers, that it was a genetic disease." Exasperated with the government’s blatant disregard for their worries, the community turned to the School of Environmental Studies, Jadavpur University, which responded quickly and effectively.
In order to improve its management of arsenic, the government needs to take several important steps. First, the government must turn its attention to the immediate needs of the people by introducing short-term technologies to provide temporary relief. West Bengal could easily draw on Bangladesh’s vast and growing experience with short-term mitigation technologies. Second, the government should tap into the funding available from international aid agencies such as UNICEF and the World Bank in order to implement its numerous long-term plans. The government has avoided external aid perhaps as a result of its centrist ideals. Inviting the participation of the foreign community would question the state’s integrity to channel development. The international community is now "quite aware of the problem. They are willing to supply money. Funds are not a problem anymore. The greater problem is how to organize yourself to use funds in a very productive and efficient manner." Using available aid, the government should find ways to mobilize NGOs and the public by increasing awareness of the problem and decentralizing mitigation activities.
Capacity of International Aid Agencies
In contrast to the situation in Bangladesh, international aid agencies have remained relatively detached from development efforts in West Bengal. Chandan Shengupta of UNICEF Calcutta states, "UNICEF is a very small partner, we provide peanuts, hardly 3-4% of government allocation." Upon visiting the UNICEF office in August 2000, I discovered that the organization had only recently become involved in arsenic mitigation. In 1999, UNICEF contributed $2.91 million to a four-year arsenic mitigation program to be run through the Public Health Engineering Department. This project includes a comprehensive tube well screening program in the 68 affected blocks of West Bengal, awareness raising efforts, and the provision of community-based arsenic mitigation options including deep tube wells, pond sand filters, and household filters.
The institutional arrangement of UNICEF’s arsenic mitigation program in West Bengal is interestingly different from its program in Bangladesh. While UNICEF Bangladesh chose to tap into the capacity of a large national NGO network, UNICEF West Bengal constructed a program with state government agencies at the focal point. Rather than trying to improve government coordination with outside organizations, the designed project focuses on improving intra-governmental communication:
We see a lack of coordination within panchayit, PHED, and DGHS. The health people, doctors and medical staff, are working in their way. DPHE is working in its way, while the Panchayit is not so much involved. That is the area we are working in. We are trying to involve all three of these organizations.
This conscious selection of project partners reveals the relative strengths of institutions in the specific countries as well as the pragmatics of aid. In the presence of a strong government apparatus, international organizations are not able to reach the grassroots.
Ideally, international aid agencies should seek to fill the gaps in government programs and, in this way, help governments to build capacity and formulate better policies. However, only now, a decade after the arsenic contamination problem was discovered in West Bengal, are international aid agencies becoming involved – UNICEF being the only major agency to step forward. The lack of involvement of international aid agencies reflects West Bengal’s centralized government that strives to maintain its independence and authority.
More tellingly, UNICEF has not succeeded in changing the governmental paradigm to a more holistic arsenic mitigation approach. Since the state government has shown great innovation and commitment in designing long-term solutions, international aid agencies should focus on short-term relief, awareness-raising, and mobilization of NGOs. Although UNICEF’s program does address these issues, more emphasis is given to tube well screening and research, an area already targeted by the West Bengal government.
International aid agencies have the benefit of a broad range of experiences and should put this advantage to better use. UNICEF West Bengal should increase dialog with its Bangladesh office in order for the two agencies to learn from each other. UNICEF Bangladesh has effectively mobilized NGOs while UNICEF West Bengal has constructed a healthy working relationship with the state government. These contrasting approaches should be shared to improve the effectiveness of aid programs.
Capacity of NGOs
NGOs in West Bengal have played a very small role in arsenic mitigation. Organizations such as the Center for Study of Man and the Environment and Bengal Engineering College and have mainly been involved in research projects such as analysis of water samples and arsenic mitigation technologies. Recently, NGOs, such as the Ramakrishna Mission, have been identified by aid agencies as possible stakeholders in and contributors to mitigation efforts, but collaborative projects with such groups are yet to be implemented.
The School of Environmental Studies (SOES), Jadavpur University, is one of the few non-governmental organizations that has been actively involved in arsenic mitigation. Although SOES is an educational institution, SOES has largely taken on an activist role in the fight against arsenic. Headed by Dr. Dipenkar Chakraborti, SOES has carried out tube well testing, water analysis, and implementation of short-term relief measures. Most importantly, SOES was the first organization to hypothesize that arsenic contamination existed in Bangladesh and consequently alert the proper authorities. One of the school’s greatest contributions has been in the field of awareness-raising. SOES has constantly challenged the government to address the arsenic contamination problem more effectively and efficiently.
Unfortunately, SOES is an exceptional actor. West Bengal has very few NGOs active in environmental management and even these few NGOs have failed to pressure the government or implement arsenic mitigation programs. Most NGOs have been ‘waiting’ in some sense for the government to approach them and supply funding for projects rather than seeking their own funding and implementing their own programs. In instances when the government has attempted to involve them, NGOs have mainly been used for their research capacities.
One major factor limiting the capacity of NGOs to address the problem of mitigation is lack of funding. NGOs in Bangladesh receive large sums of money from international aid; West Bengal in contrast is ranked lower on the aid agenda. Further compounded by the government’s disregard for NGO capacity, NGOs often lack the funds needed to implement arsenic mitigation programs. NGOs in West Bengal also face the problem of size. In contrast to Bangladesh, West Bengal does not have the advantage of large, national NGOs. The Ramakrishna Mission is a large nationwide religious NGO, but it is dwarfed in comparison to the giant corporation-like NGOs of Bangladesh. Because of their smaller size, West Bengal’s NGOs cannot implement large-scale programs; they can only focus on a small piece of the pie.
Despite the problems facing NGOs in West Bengal, NGOs still must play an important role in arsenic mitigation efforts. They have the capacity to mobilize communities and understand the needs of the local people, and they should use this ability to complement and improve government efforts. Similarly, because NGOs have the ability to work at the grassroots, they should help the government to develop community-specific, short-term solutions. NGOs in West Bengal need to reconstruct their identities in relation to public health and environmental problems and realize their potential as catalysts of change.
The capacity of the people of West Bengal mirrors that of the rural Bangladeshi public. In general, people in arsenic-affected areas have been relatively uninvolved with arsenic mitigation efforts. In some communities where clinical signs of arsenicosis have been discovered, people are alerting authorities. However, as mentioned earlier, these authorities have been slow to respond to the people’s concerns.
Lack of knowledge concerning arsenic is a serious detriment to civic awareness and action. Like the rural people of Bangladesh, the West Bengali rural population does not understand the causes or nature of arsenicosis. Many people believe that the disease is contagious and consequently ostracize victims. Others simply believe that the disease is ‘the curse of god’ and has no natural solution. Because of these incorrect perceptions, people do not understand the potentially significant role they can play in expediting arsenic mitigation. However, in some instances, even when awareness of the problem exists, people have ignored the need to find a solution. People are "willing to spend 100 rupees to visit a doctor, but they are not ready to pay 10 rupees for water because they think water is the government’s problem. It is not their problem." The local people must realize that the government alone cannot mitigate arsenic.
In principle, the rural population has tremendous capacity to deal with arsenic if only they could be made aware of the problem. After all, as UNICEF has observed, "providing scientifically correct information to the people is central to empowering them so that they can understand the issues and take corrective measures, including changes in behavior and practices, in a self-reliant way." Until a long-term water supply option is provided, the local people could use community-based solutions to deal with arsenic contamination. For instance, if a community possesses one safe tube well, the members of the community could share this tube well for drinking purposes while using the contaminated tube wells for other daily needs. People can help find at least a temporary solution to the problem provided that they realize the gravity of the situation and the availability of options that could help to alleviate it.
5. Bengal and Beyond
During my three months in South Asia, I was continuously surprised by the sheer number of people inhabiting the subcontinent. People were absolutely everywhere, living in the most seemingly uninhabitable areas. I would take boats, climb across bamboo bridges, and trudge barefoot on miles of muddy paths to reach a cluster of clay homes and thatched roofs. Traveling through the foothills of the Himalayas at night, I would look up and instead of seeing stars, see the lights of towns clinging to the hillsides. The greatest resource of the developing world is its sheer abundance of people. With these people come imaginations, ideas, and energy that have the potential for unseen change and growth. However, the challenge for the developing world is converting this invaluable resource to capacity.
In the preceding chapters, we have explored the strengths and weaknesses of institutions in Bangladesh and West Bengal. With millions people at risk of arsenic poisoning, building capacity of the government, NGOs, and the people is imperative. Knowledge must be transformed into usable information and energy into coordinated action to address the crisis quickly. As we have seen, the current programs and policies have been less than optimal in accomplishing this goal. Nevertheless, numerous lessons have emerged to allow more effective management of environmental problems. The implications of this study reach beyond the Indian subcontinent to provide important insights into capacity and capacity-building of developing countries. The most important point as we will see is that, without appropriate institutional structures, civic virtue does not always translate to capacity.
Globalization has meant the creation of an international language to define the internal workings as well as external interactions of countries. We have, in some cases, embraced generalizations at the expense of cultural, social, and political uniqueness, a situation that can lead to the development of ineffective programs and policies. The definition and practical application of the term ‘capacity-building’ is symptomatic of the problems of creating a global paradigm for development. Conventionally, capacity-building has focused on strengthening government institutions or local people. For instance, as defined by Valentine James, capacity-building:
Refers to enabling the indigenous people of developing countries to carry out development processes successfully by empowering them through strengthening domestic institutions, providing domestic markets, and improving local government efforts to sustain infrastructures, social institutions, and commercial institutions.
This definition focuses on the capacity of local people and, secondarily, on the strengthening of NGOs and government institutions. Meanwhile, international aid agencies, particularly UNICEF, "has the mandate to work with the national government" and peripherally, to strengthen the capacity of local people and NGOs.
Overall, capacity-building has failed to emphasize sufficiently the importance of strengthening non-governmental organizations. NGOs have largely been skipped over in the definition of capacity. The people and the government are considered legitimate parties in the exercise of power; non-governmental organizations, in contrast, are often seen as anti-government institutions. Case studies such as arsenic mitigation in Bangladesh and West Bengal suggest that we must recognize the legitimacy of NGOs as collections of citizens committed to causes of national and global importance and thus realize the important contribution they make to the realm of development and the environment.
In the developing world context, NGOs particularly have an integral role to play in the formulation and execution of development programs. Governments of developing countries do not have the infrastructural ability to confront the plethora of social and environmental problems bombarding their nations. Thus, NGOs and international aid agencies play an important role in implementing development projects to complement government efforts. In the past few decades, the number of NGOs has grown exponentially demonstrating the increasing importance of NGOs in the development process. For instance:
The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro confirmed by numbers alone that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had taken their place beside state and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), in particular, those of the United Nations (UN) system, as rightful participants in environmental management. The Global Forum for NGOs held concurrently with the official Earth Summit drew Representatives from some 7,000 organizations, outnumbering governments present by about one hundred to one.
In many cases, such as that of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India, NGOs have taken on a large role in mobilizing the grassroots and designing innovative solutions to a variety of social and environmental problems. NGOs cannot and should not any longer be a peripheral consideration in the equation of capacity-building.
The arsenic contamination problem in Bangladesh and West Bengal vividly illustrates the crucial role NGOs play in solving environmental crises. In Bangladesh, as we have seen, NGOs have assumed a major role in arsenic mitigation efforts. In collaboration with UNICEF, large national NGOs such as BRAC and Grameen Bank have initiated comprehensive short-term mitigation programs in five of Bangladesh’s districts. The programs designed by these NGOs and UNICEF use innovative techniques of participatory research and evaluation to mobilize local communities and design mitigation programs adapted to particular social and geographical settings. Numerous small NGOs have also stepped up to the task of arsenic mitigation. In particular, small NGOs have designed creative strategies of communication and awareness-raising using their extensive knowledge of and experience with the grassroots. Despite these advances, as discussed in Chapter 3, problems of information transfer, coordination, and networking are reducing the overall effectiveness of NGOs.
In contrast to NGOs, Bangladeshi government agencies have shown significantly less initiative in implementing mitigation programs. The programs of the DPHE and the DGHS have been limited in scope, often focusing on only one or two pieces of the huge puzzle. For instance, DGHS has only implemented programs relating to identification and treatment of arsenicosis while the DPHE has mainly participated in the construction of mitigation technologies and the digging of deep tube wells. No government department or organization has taken the lead in designing a comprehensive arsenic mitigation action plan. The DPHE in particular has been subordinate to international aid organizations confronting arsenic. Although the absence of effective government efforts demonstrates the need to build the capacity of public institutions in Bangladesh, the integral role of NGOs in the process of achieving a strong, democratic government must be acknowledged.
West Bengal provides the polar opposite situation. There, the government has actively designed and implemented long-term arsenic mitigation programs although their slow speed and inadequate geographical scope do cast doubt on project effectiveness. In evaluating the government’s activities, the key word to focus on is ‘long-term’ – ‘short-term’ is a concept that has been conspicuously absent from the rhetoric of arsenic mitigation in West Bengal. Similarly, NGOs have also been missing from arsenic mitigation efforts. Although the government itself should take more interest in emergency relief, NGOs, as evinced by the situation in Bangladesh, can be mobilized to provide short-term mitigation options. In order to build the overall strength of arsenic mitigation in West Bengal, emphasis should be given to capacity-building of NGOs.
In both Bangladesh and West Bengal, NGOs can contribute significantly to finding sustainable solutions to arsenic. The Bangladeshi situation demonstrates the effective mobilization of NGOs and provides several concrete suggestions for improving their capacity. The West Bengali situation on the other hand amplifies the need for more NGO capacity and the detrimental results of excluding NGOs from the capacity equation. International aid organizations and governments in the developing world should learn to think of "NGOs more as a permanent, planned and negotiated part of the landscape, and less as temporary and somewhat troublesome gap-fillers." NGOs are a necessary part of development and must be given central importance in discourse about capacity-building.
Bridging the Gap: Globalization to Grassroots
International aid agencies embrace the motto of ‘Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime’, "but what if those of us doing the teaching don’t actually know how to fish?" This is precisely what has happened in the politics of development. Globalization has seen the generalization of methods used to ‘build capacity’ and ‘develop’; as agents of development, international aid agencies have assumed a key role in promoting these procedures and ideas. In many instances these methods have failed to harmonize with the social, political, and cultural fabric of specific settings. Dialogue between development planners and the grassroots is often missing, leading to miscommunication and project failure. Perhaps even the word ‘development’ implies a certain disregard for cultural integrity by connoting the need to attain a certain model of success. We must carefully define project objectives in order to ensure that they are in fact products of the cultural setting and not of Western constructs. The same formulaic solution cannot possibly work for every nation, or even every village – a problem that is keenly felt both in Bangladesh and in West Bengal.
The need to design a country-specific development program haunted Bangladesh and West Bengal even before the discovery of arsenic contamination. The effort of the international community and domestic governments to reduce the prevalence of diarrhoeal diseases is an apt example of the failure to create effective programs suited to the environment and culture of the developing world. To reduce diarrhoeal diseases, international aid agencies, and consequently the governments of Bangladesh and West Bengal, promoted the installation of shallow aquifer tube wells as a source of safe drinking water. In some countries, this may be the ideal solution to problems of diarrhoeal diseases; however, in both South Asian settings, institutions were only looking at one part of the larger picture. A significant cause of diarrhoeal diseases in both locations is the lack of proper hand-washing practices and clean water storage vessels. The large-scale engineering solution of tube wells ignored the contribution of cultural factors to this public health problem.
The use of tube wells presents a further problem overlooked by program proponents. Located at the convergence of three rivers, Bangladesh and West Bengal are regions blessed and cursed by an abundance of surface water resources. Despite this copious resource, international aid agencies and domestic governments immediately turned to the use of groundwater without considering the long-run implications of their decision. As Dr. Chakraborti comments:
I told the UNICEF that "you know that West Bengal has 4,000 square km of wetland and 4,000mm of rainfall, so why don’t you hold a check in your right hand and say, ‘We want you to use this money only after you have used your available water resources 100%. After that, you can go back to using underground water.’" But no, they never say this.
Now, the immense population pressure in the region is creating problems of over-exploitation of groundwater resources. Meanwhile, surface water resources continue to be mismanaged and polluted. The discovery of arsenic in groundwater further compounds the existing water use difficulties. A more culturally, socially, and environmentally sensitive solution to sanitation could have led to a watershed management plan including proper and effective utilization of surface water, coupled with responsible groundwater use. The one-size-fits-all sanitation solution used in Bangladesh and West Bengal set the scene for disaster.
The case of arsenic contamination is replaying the problems of the past. Again, the international community and domestic institutions are not bearing in mind the cultural and social dimensions of their mitigation attempts. West Bengali institutions more than Bangladeshi ones have taken a top-down approach to arsenic mitigation – an approach that encourages formulaic responses. Officials located in their Calcutta government buildings are designing the solutions to rural water supply – local communities to be affected by these new supply measures are hardly consulted or involved in planning processes.
Some of the solutions being used in Bangladesh are particularly troublesome. Because of the large amount of donor funds entering the country for arsenic mitigation, the market for arsenic removal technologies has been growing. New technologies appear every month claiming to have cost-efficient arsenic removal and community approval. Eager to provide emergency relief measures, the government, NGOs, and international aid agencies are purchasing these removal devices without reflection on their long-term effects. Arsenic removal technologies will inevitably come with the problem of disposing arsenic-laden sludge, and in a country like Bangladesh, with lower regulatory capacity, this situation can lead to long-term environmental problems. The high degree of poverty, illiteracy, and geographical isolation in rural villages is also likely to complicate maintenance and disposal procedures.
The focus on obtaining arsenic removal devices shows further neglect of long-term consequences in that again the potential use of surface water resources is ignored. Several pond-filtering devices are being introduced in Bangladesh and West Bengal; however, more can and should be done to promote this less environmentally-harmful solution. In order to solve the problem of arsenic contamination and over-exploitation of groundwater resources, a more holistic approach to watershed management needs to be formulated. Institutions involved in arsenic mitigation efforts should utilize this crisis as an opportunity to reverse the harmful paradigm of extensive groundwater use that arose during the 1970s and 80s.
The fact that the Public Health Engineering Department in both countries is the government institution leading arsenic mitigation efforts reflects lack of cultural and social sensitivity. These departments are technical arms of the government, primarily charged with designing and building water supply facilities; department employees do not have training or skills in community education or mobilization. In Bangladesh, the chief engineer of the Department of Public Health and other top DPHE officials mainly carry out the programs of international aid agencies; thus, aid agency staff, people who are generally less familiar with the local culture and society, are designing arsenic mitigation programs. In West Bengal, PHED officials autonomously decide on arsenic mitigation strategies, but they too lack the appropriate training to implement locally adapted programs. Institutions in Bangladesh and West Bengal must carefully examine the implications of their development decisions. The failure to consider local setting can result in long-term negative consequences. Universally-applicable formulas for development must be dismissed and replaced by country-specific planning.
Following the Institutional Path
The cases I have discussed offer insight on a recurrent aspect of environmental policymaking. Do existing institutions shape a certain approach to an environmental problem or does the problem itself promote a particular institutional and political responses? In the case of arsenic contamination in Bangladesh and West Bengal, the policy response has mirrored prior traditions of environmental management. In Bangladesh, before the discovery of arsenic, NGOs played a major role, at times more important than that of government, in many environmental and developmental programs. Although the Ministry of Forestry and the Environment was intended to supervise and mitigate all environmental efforts, the MOEF focused mainly on pollution abatement measures, ignoring a large range of environmental and public health issues. Arsenic mitigation as well has been dominated by NGOs and international aid agencies while the MOEF has remained completely uninvolved and other government agencies have participated only peripherally. NGOs have demonstrated the capacity to mobilize quickly and provide short-term water supply options to local communities. In contrast, the government failed to assume responsibility for providing a long-term source of safe water – a task that only the government can fulfill.
NGO importance in arsenic mitigation efforts is partly the result of international aid strategies. Through its extensive experience in Bangladesh, UNICEF realized the unique strength and capacity of the country’s large NGOs. This international actor tapped large NGOs as a promising vehicle of arsenic mitigation and community mobilization. Because large NGOs depend upon international funding, international aid agencies in a sense have perpetuated the pre-existing paradigm of environmental management in Bangladesh.
However, the World Bank’s Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation Water Supply Program (BAMWSP) attempted to work against these institutional expectations. By creating a central office staffed mainly by deputed government officials, BAMWSP centralized power in the hands of the state. To strengthen government capacity, a network of local government committees was formed to manage issues of arsenic mitigation. Despite this elaborate and institutionally innovative plan, BAMWSP has failed miserably to meet its objectives. Its attempts to formulate a problem-specific approach were thwarted by institutional constraints. Creating an entire infrastructure from scratch to deal with an immediate crisis problem is a colossal task. The World Bank was too ambitious and failed to consider the existing institutional framework of Bangladesh. Ultimately, the government will need to assume responsibility for arsenic mitigation and create appropriate institutions; however, this goal will only be achieved with time and through incremental change. International institutions such as the World Bank and UNICEF cannot create a system of environmental management from the outside – the impetus for change must come from internal actors.
The arsenic contamination problem in West Bengal also supports the idea that existing institutions shape the management of environmental problems. Because of its communist government, power to regulate and combat environmental problems has largely been concentrated in the state. NGOs have mainly played the role of scientific and philanthropic organizations while the government has devised and implemented programs, including arsenic mitigation. Accordingly, very few NGOs have actively designed and implemented mitigation programs. International aid agencies also have historically played a minor part in development issues in West Bengal and accordingly, their involvement in the arsenic crisis has been minimal.
Pre-arsenic environmental management in Bangladesh was practically the opposite of that in West Bengal. Despite the fact that these two areas were politically united only fifty years ago, they have evolved drastically different methods of handling environmental problems. Arsenic management also has taken disparate paths despite the fact that contamination in these areas differs only in the extent of the population affected. Bangladesh has implemented a variety of short-term mitigation technologies while West Bengal has installed several long-term mitigation measures. Neither has effectively escaped from its institutional trappings to mitigate arsenic comprehensively.
The Politics of Participation
Another perspective on capacity stems from the work of political theorists who attempted to define the prerequisites of a successful democracy. Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work provides a particularly compelling argument. Specifically, Putnam turns to the political thought of "Machiavelli and several of his contemporaries [who] concluded that whether free institutions succeeded or failed depended on the character of its citizens, or their ‘civic virtue.’" Elaborating on these ideas, Putnam believes that high capacity democracies are the result of strong civic association. In his Italian research, Putnam provides several convincing reasons for this claim. First, in areas of greater civic association, people are more likely to vote, to contact their representatives, and to contribute to forms of self-government; thus, the government will better represent the will of the people. Second, the government of more active civic areas will derive its strength from all levels of society, not only the elite; consequently, the politicians will support political and social equality, ideas that strengthen the capacity of the people and the government. In contrast, in areas of low civic association, people are distrustful of government and the elite formulates policy; the result is policies that are made to be broken, accompanied by rampant corruption and a powerless and alienated public.
The arsenic contamination problem in Bangladesh and West Bengal challenges Putnam’s ideas of government capacity. Bangladesh is a nation of NGOs and possesses a strong civic community "marked by an active, public-spirited citizenry, by egalitarian political relations, by a social fabric of trust and cooperation;" yet its government is conspicuously weak. Under Putnam’s theory of social capital, the Bangladeshi government should be far more responsive to the concerns of its people, demonstrate a high degree of accountability and transparency, and display an array of effective social programs. The very opposite is true. Bangladesh instead illustrates more nearly the picture of 20th century modernizing countries presented by Samuel Huntington:
As social forces became more variegated, political institutions had to become more complex and authoritative. It is precisely this development, however, which failed in many modernizing societies of the twentieth century. Social forces were strong, political institutions weak. Legislatures and executives, public authorities and political parties remained fragile and disorganized. The development of the state lagged behind the evolution of the society.
Social networks in Bangladesh have continued to advance since independence, but the state has been plagued with political upheaval and continuous restructuring. The government has not been able to keep up with the country’s mounting social, political, and environmental problems.
Arsenic management in Bangladesh challenges Putnam’s assumptions. NGOs have eagerly advanced upon the scene of arsenic contamination, seizing international funds to implement a variety of local programs. In contrast, the government has remained in the background, mechanically nodding its head to the onslaught of arsenic mitigation projects initiated by NGOs and international aid agencies. The government has not capitalized on the momentum of NGO efforts and has remained a marginal party in arsenic mitigation.
Why does this case not fit Putnam’s theory? Putnam is correct in stating "local associations are a crucial ingredient in successful strategies of rural development"; however, these ‘successful strategies’ are not necessarily initiated and implemented by the government. In the case of Bangladesh, successful strategies of development are usually the result of NGO efforts. NGOs have in a sense supplanted the power of the state. Disillusioned with the corruption and ineffectiveness of the government, the public has turned to the non-governmental sector as a reliable and effective agent of change. Acknowledged as praise-worthy benefactors, NGOs, particularly the large national NGOs such as BRAC and Grameen Bank, have succeeded in attracting the skilled and the educated. As shown by UNICEF’s arsenic mitigation program, NGOs have also obtained the support and approval of the international community.
Putnam assumes that civic associations will necessarily engender a community actively interested and involved in government politics. However, NGOs have been satisfied in their position as a pseudo-government. Instead of using their power base to influence governmental policy setting, NGOs have funneled their power into creating and implementing innovative development programs that parallel and prevail over less effective government efforts. The arsenic mitigation programs currently being run by BRAC and various other NGOs do not involve lobbying the government with the concerns of the people. NGOs seem to have accepted the incapacity of the state and have instead pursued more fruitful avenues. The government, for its part, has tacitly approved of NGO programs and has, in a sense, allowed NGOs to take over its responsibilities. In the case of arsenic, the DPHE, as a partner in UNICEF’s arsenic mitigation program, has agreed to its marginal figurehead role. BAMWSP attempted to restore agency to the government but this plan proved too ambitious considering the low level of DPHE capacity.
At first glance, West Bengal seems to fit Putnam’s assumptions better. West Bengal lacks a motivated, politically-spirited citizenry. Few NGOs venture outside the sphere of research – rural development strategies and political lobbying are not on the NGO agenda. Meanwhile, the West Bengal government, based on a moderate form of communism, is highly centralized. Ruled by the elite, the government mainly responds to the problems of the middle class; the lower classes are voiceless in the political sphere. West Bengal follows Putnam’s assumption that:
Politics in less civic regions… is marked by vertical relationships of authority and dependency, as embodied in patron-client networks. Politics in those regions is, in a fundamental sense, more elitist. Authority relations in the political sphere closely mirror authority relations in the wider social setting.
Although the government has addressed issues of rural development, those affected by projects have very little input in the planning process. Top-down is the motto of West Bengali communism.
Although West Bengal’s poor civic community is correlated with its non-participatory government, the capacity of this government to act does not fit Putnam’s assumptions as well. In the case of arsenic, the state government has devised effective long-term strategies. Although these strategies may take years to implement and provide inadequate coverage, they are much more advanced and successful than approaches of the Bangladeshi government. The government has taken an interest in the problems of the poor and has independently designed extensive piped water supply programs. Economic constraints seem to be a greater hindrance to government’s capacity to act than the lack of civic participation.
As we enter the 21st century and are forced to combat transboundary environmental problems such as global warming, the role of the developing world will be integral. Containing the majority of the human population, developing nations must take their place beside industrialized countries in promoting sustainable development. However, they must first strengthen their domestic institutions in order to meet the dual challenges of development and environmental protection. To accomplish this goal, a major paradigm shift must be made.
As the arsenic problem in Bangladesh and West Bengal tragically demonstrates, antiquated 19th century public health institutions have been given the task of dealing with 21st century environmental problems. This basic mismatch of task and function has seriously impeded the long-term sustainability of development programs, such as water and sanitation. For instance, the widespread installation of tube wells in the Bengal region during the 1960s and 1970s was largely the result of a public health orientation. A more holistic approach would have involved environmental impact assessment to evaluate the relationship between humans and the environment – an approach that might not have resulted in such complete dependence upon groundwater.
Public health must be reframed as environmental health in order to ensure a people-centered and environment-centered approach to development. The effectiveness of capacity- building will ultimately depend upon this reformulation. After all, if the question is phrased incorrectly, we will undoubtedly get the wrong answers. We must not only consider our approaches to capacity-building but also the goal for which we are building capacity. Only then can we hope to attain a sustainable future.
During my summer research in Bangladesh and West Bengal, I had the interesting opportunity to assume the role of a participant-observer. At first, interviews and reading preoccupied my time and energy, but as I became more comfortable with the surrounding environment, I found myself actually becoming a player in arsenic mitigation. My internship with UNICEF funneled me into the realm of project planning and design. Initially, I had only been given the task of ‘editing’ UNICEF’s second phase plan of Action Research into Community-based Arsenic Mitigation; however, as I flipped each page, I realized that my month of research and evaluation in Bangladesh had significantly influenced my perceptions of arsenic management. Through my constant role as the observer, I had come to grasp the problems and successes of Bangladeshi environmental management. When I saw these same deficits and surpluses repeated in UNICEF’s rough draft, I could not help but to become a participant. I immediately began critiquing the plan, suggesting practical areas for improvement and solidification.
In the previous pages, I offer critiques of capacity in which I include various proposals for capacity-building. As I soon learned during my UNICEF internship, implementing these proposals in ‘real life’ is often extremely difficult. The most significant obstacle I encountered was the challenge of increasing government capacity. UNICEF’s plan actively called for augmenting DPHE responsibility and capacity. DPHE headquarters was given several new tasks such as training and awareness creation of NGOs, DPHE SAEs, local government, and health complex staff. SAEs were commissioned with organizing an Upazilla Arsenic Mitigation Committee, a district level committee, conducting training sessions on construction of technologies and supervising communication campaigns and tube well testing. Despite this apparent increase of DPHE participation, other parts of the plan compromised any hope of actual DPHE capacity-building. Many of the tasks assigned to the DPHE were reiterated in the responsibilities of the NGOs. Because the NGOs possess significantly more capacity, if the plan were implemented as drafted, NGOs would quickly dominate arsenic mitigation while the DPHE assumed its traditional passive role. As an observer, I recognized this dilemma, but as a planner, I fumbled with finding a solution. Mitigating arsenic is immediately necessary; thus, I understood the overlapping of DPHE and NGO responsibilities. UNICEF was safeguarding its program since in the short-term the most important agenda item is to give people safe water. However, the challenge is to ensure effective mitigation in the present while increasing the government’s long-term capabilities.
One solution that my supervisor, Ross Nickson, and I pondered was creating a Project Office at the local level which SAEs and NGO staff could share. By geographically bridging the gap between the government and non-government, we could induce more dialogue and learning between these parties. Each party, in a sense, could supervise each other to ensure accountability and transparency. Furthermore, the Project Office could serve to centralize information concerning arsenic mitigation in the specific locality. Despite our ideas, the solution must ultimately come from within. Merely the fact that Ross and I, two foreigners, were composing a rough draft for arsenic mitigation in Bangladesh proposed a problem. NGOs and the various involved government agencies would be given a copy of the plan to review and approve; however, the original ideas were those of foreign consultants. NGOs and the government should have been approaching UNICEF with their own plans for UNICEF’s critique and approval.
Beyond the trials of designing an effective plan, I realized the challenges of effective planning. How could aid agencies in Bangladesh transfer planning power to the various stakeholders? I could easily understand the desire of UNICEF to play the lead role in designing arsenic mitigation. On one level, UNICEF had the responsibility to mitigate since its earlier programs had contributed to the crisis. Further, UNICEF was accountable to donors to ensure the proper use of funds. Finally, UNICEF, like me, had the advantage of an outsider’s perspective. Distance allows one to perceive problems and opportunities not always visible to people entrenched in the situation. Nevertheless, cultural and social expectations that might not always mesh with the local setting necessarily skew an outsider’s perspective. I left Bangladesh thoroughly realizing the challenges and frustrations of environmental management in the developing world. Building capacity is not an easy task by far. Mistakes will be made in searching for the correct path. The key is to learn from our mistakes and successes and build on our knowledge. This thesis is one page in the story of development.
Appendix Research Methodology
In spring 2000, I first became familiar with the subject of arsenic contamination in Bangladesh and West Bengal through Professor Richard Wilson of Harvard University. From June 18 to June 22, 2000, I attended the 4th International Conference on Arsenic Exposure and Health Effects in San Diego, California. At the conference, I interviewed and spoke with numerous politicians and scientists whom Dr. Wilson had recommended as pertinent people in the field of arsenic contamination. Most of the people I interviewed currently work outside the Bengal region but have either worked there previously or have researched related subjects. The conference also gave me the opportunity to meet a variety of people from Bangladesh and West Bengal whom I would interview during my summer travels in the region.
After the conference, I immediately flew to Dhaka, Bangladesh, to begin my internship with the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC). I had established contacts with Dr. Salehuddin Ahmed, Deputy Executive Director of BRAC, in the spring. For one month from June 25 to July 23, I interned with the Arsenic Team of the Research and Evaluation Division under supervision of Mr. Mizanur Rahman. To familiarize myself with current programs, I began by reading and editing BRAC’s Final Report of Phase 1 of the Community-Based Arsenic Mitigation Project for Action Research. I also began to collect materials regarding mitigation technologies, field test kits, communication strategies, and community empowerment. I obtained copies of all UNICEF-BRAC-GOB project agreements relating to arsenic. To better understand the people and places affected by arsenic, I spent one day in the field observing the actual implementation of mitigation technologies as well as the relative community acceptance of each technology.
During the time I interned with BRAC, I intermittently spent one or two days with various other organizations selected based upon their involvement in arsenic. I attempted to visit different types of organizations, i.e. international aid agencies, NGOs, and government agencies. Specifically, I visited the World Bank, the Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation Water Supply Project, the International Center for Diarrhoeal Disease Research Bangladesh (ICDDRB), the National Institute of Preventative and Social Medicine, the Directorate General of Health Services, and the Department of Public Health Engineering. At each institution, I interviewed the relevant people and collected any organization documents regarding arsenic.
From June 23 to August 6, I volunteered with the Water and Environmental Sanitation Section of UNICEF. Supervised by Mr. Ross Nickson, UNICEF consultant, I critiqued the second phase of UNICEF’s strategic two-year plan for arsenic mitigation, Strategy for Implementation of Arsenic Mitigation Activities in 15 Upazillas. I also had the opportunity to utilize UNICEF’s library containing a wealth of information about arsenic. I collected newspaper articles, conference abstracts, scientific papers, UNICEF project agreements, and World Bank project plans.
Having spent six weeks in Bangladesh, I traveled to Calcutta where I interned with the School of Environmental Studies (SOES), Jadavpur University from August 11 to September 2, 2000. In the spring, I had contacted Dr. Chakraborti, the head of SOES, through Professor Wilson. Most of my time with SOES was spent pursuing my own research. The lab had compiled a small library that I particularly utilized for its West Bengali resources including videos, newspaper clippings and PHED documents concerning arsenic mitigation. I also spent two days in the field conducting interviews with villagers. In addition to working with SOES, I visited various organizations involved in arsenic mitigation including UNICEF Calcutta, the Center for Study of Man and the Environment, the All India Institute for Hygiene and Public Health, the Institute of Post Graduate Medical Education and Research, the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine, and the Public Health Engineering Department. Again, I interviewed the relevant people at each institution and collected any organization documents concerning arsenic.
List of Interviewees
4th International Conference on Arsenic Exposure and Health Effects:
Dr. Charles Abernathy - United States Environmental Protection Agency
Dr. Willard Chappell - Professor, Physics and Environmental Science, University of Colorado Denver
Dr. Han A. Heijnen - Environmental Health Advisor, World Health Organization, Bangladesh
Rick Johnston - Former Consultant, UNICEF, Bangladesh
Jingjing Qian - Project Officer, Water, Environment, and Sanitation Cluster, UNICEF, New York
Dr. Tanveer Ahsan - Urban Specialist, Water and Sanitation Program, UNDP-World Bank, Bangladesh
A. Mushtaque R. Chowdhury - Deputy Executive Director and Director Research, Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, Bangladesh
Zia Moin Haider - Consultant, Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation Water Supply Project
Dr. Bilqis Amin Hoque - Senior Water and Sanitation Specialist, World Bank, Bangladesh
Dr. A.Z.M. Iftikhar Hussain - Deputy Programme Manager (Arsenic), Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Bangladesh
Iteshemul Huq – Chief Engineer, Department of Public Health Engineering, Bangladesh
Shirin Hussain - Project Officer, Water and Environmental Sanitation Section, UNICEF Bangladesh
Shafiq Islam - Project Officer, Water and Environmental Sanitation Section, UNICEF, Bangladesh
Babar Kabir - Country Sector Leader, Water and Sanitation Program, UNDP-World Bank, Bangladesh
Ross Nickson - Consultant, UNICEF, Bangladesh
Dr. M. Nuruzzaman - Consultant, Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation Water Supply Project
Mahfuzar Rahman - International Center for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Bangladesh
M.H. Salim Ullah Sayed - Assistant Professor, Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, National Institute of Preventative and Social Medicine
Dr. Kanak Ranjan Talukder - Deputy Director, Directorate General of Health Services, Bangladesh
Gurchandran Ari - Resident of Mohanpur, West Bengal
Parimal Biswas - Village Postmaster, Kulsur, West Bengal
Dr. Dipenkar Chakraborti - School of Environmental Studies, Jadavpur University, Calcutta
Dr. D.N. Gupta Mazumder, MD - Professor and Head of Medicine and Gastroenterology, Institute of Post Graduate Medical Education and Research, Calcutta
Professor K.J. Nath - Director-Professor and Head, All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, Calcutta
Bikash C. Poddar - Center for Study of Man and the Environment, Calcutta
Asesh Ray - Chief Engineer, Public Health Engineering Department, West Bengal
Chandan Sengupta - Project Officer Water and Environmental Sanitation Section, UNICEF, Calcutta
Sample List of Interview Questions
Policy / Program Design
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