UNICEF, the killer (updated)
From Bangladesh comes a story of criminal irresponsibility on the part of UNICEF, the United Nations Agency for whom I used to collect pennies, nickels and dimes as a child on Halloween in the 1950s. In an ill-considered move to "help" Bangladeshis stop drinking dirty surface water, the agency financed the construction of wells to provide "clean" drinking water.
Tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands will die.
Why? Because nobody tested for the natural poison, arsenic, widely found in underground water. And when a doctor did find traces of the metal, and when Bangladeshi villagers did start turning up at doctors' surgeries with the tumours and telltale signs of arsenic poisoning, the results were swiftly buried so that nobody made the connection.
Even now as the scale of the calamity emerges, nobody is admitting culpability. Not UNICEF, which initiated the tubewells programme and paid for the first 900,000 wells, nor the World Bank, a fellow sponsor. Not the Bangladeshi government, or the foreign engineers and public health scientists who did not think to test the water for so long.
The same agencies that played godmother to the catastrophe are now wringing their hands and saying it will likely take 30 years to find all the poisoned tubewells-longer than it took to sink them all.
Let us perform a small thought experiment. Let us suppose that a commercial mining company had, in the course of its operations, poisoned the water supply of 70,000,000 people in this quite specific way. Would that have been regarded as "a sad irony", an unintended consequence of its search for profit, or perhaps as something rather more sinister and indeed typical of the way such companies operate? Would there not have been large demonstrations, probably turning soon to violence, against that company by those in the developed world who habitually express their solidarity with the impoverished victims of exploitation by their own nations' multinationals? It is unlikely that we would ever hear the end of the matter - in such a case, quite rightly.
Not only did UNICEF suppress information on the of arsenic in the water from the wells it promoted the drilling of in Bangladesh, it further ignored that heavy metal contamination in water from wells is a common concern to be tested for, and also ignored well-established technologies to address such contamination. This article by two people associated with the UN discusses treatment.
And what about the rice grown with water from the contaminated wells?