Improving water quality and health in Bangladesh

According to survey data from 2000 to 2010, an estimated 35 to 77 million people in Bangladesh have been chronically exposed to arsenic in their drinking water in what has been described as the largest mass poisoning in history.

Tube wells are deep wells that can help reduce disease caused by ingestion of pathogen-laden surface waters, but tube wells that do not run deep enough can draw arsenic-containing groundwater, resulting in severe health impacts. Millions of tube wells in Bangladesh have yet to be tested, and due to high levels of poverty, the cost of chemically testing wells is often too much for individuals and families.

Using funds from the ESRC IAA and a subsequent supplement from the institutional ESRC IAA GCRF funding, researchers from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, led by Dr Adrian Butler, developed and tested an inexpensive methodology to estimate the risk of arsenic contamination of tube wells. The team made use of simple data about the depth and location of a particular tube well, coupled with the colour of the staining on the concrete base of the well, to indicate the chemistry of the water. The team developed an algorithm that gives an indicative estimate of arsenic levels, which was supplemented by additional data collection over a one month field campaign of visiting, testing and documenting tube wells in Bangladesh.

The team also developed a demonstration water quality app off the back of the IAA funding that allows users to quickly assess the risk of arsenic contamination in a particular well. The initial trials of the methodology have been encouraging and in future could be readily incorporated into smart phone technology. This technology has the potential to reach more than 50 million people in the Bengal delta and play an effective role in arsenic mitigation and water quality assessment in similar geological terrains.