In the opening presentation, doctors Abul Barkat and Abul Hussam described the stark human rights and public health situation in Bangladesh. Official estimates indicate that 50 percent of the population of some 150 million is at some risk of arsenic poisoning from groundwater (used for drinking) from tube wells. Thirty-five percent have no access to arsenic-free drinking water and thus cannot avoid this risk. In this dire situation, poorer households are at significantly higher risk, and arsenicosis (a disease caused by arsenic poisoning) leads to even deeper poverty and more social stigma.
Dr. Hussam explained how the SONO filter, which he developed, addresses these issues. There were significant difficulties—financial, technical, and social—in introducing a system such as the filters. Providing six million filters to the poor would cost U.S. $300 million, or 10 percent of the annual public improvements development budget of Bangladesh. In addition, the production, distribution, and necessary follow-up on the use of filters pose unprecedented management challenges for the country. Social issues include: lack of awareness among social gatekeepers, such as influential media outlets and employers; widely held myths and misconceptions among the populace; and a lack of commitment by the government.
Nevertheless, both speakers agreed that there are opportunities for improving management capacity, developing local solutions, and providing public education about safe drinking water. Field tests have demonstrated the viability of an integrated arsenic-mitigation program that includes external development partners; the government of Bangladesh; electronic media; civil society; nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); and schools that recognize and accept the imperative of producing, deploying, and using SONO filters to increase access to safe water and thus improve public health and nutrition.
Christopher Seremet, technical advisor, Water Supply and Sanitation, Catholic Relief Services, focused his remarks on the constraints