Project Brings Safe Drinking Water to Villages in Bangladesh

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A major health crisis afflicted Bangladesh in the late 1980s to early 1990s that drew worldwide attention. Tens of thousands of Bangladeshis were suffering from severe symptoms, such as pigmentation of the skin, and ultimately, were dying. And more disturbing, no one knew why. A news story in 1993 reported that arsenic was found in the drinking water from a tube well in West Bengal, India. Then, in 1995, an incident of arsenic was reported again. This time it was found in the drinking water that came from a majority of the tube wells in Kalaroa, Bangladesh, a neighboring state of West Bengal. Soon after, more and more cases of arsenic were reported in the region. Research concluded that approximately 35 million people had been, drinking arsenic-contaminated water from tube wells and that more than 20 million additional people were at risk. In 2002, Rafiqul Noorani, professor of mechanical engineering in the Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering, knew it was his duty to get involved after hearing details about the epidemic at a symposium. “Helping other people in need is the greatest virtue. I’m from Panchnal, a small village in Bangladesh, and I’ve always wanted to give back to the people from my community in some way,” Noorani said. Noorani learned that the problem actually began in the 1970s when the government of Bangladesh desperately tried to wean people from drinking pond water, often an incubator for lethal diseases. As an alternative, the government and international development agencies dug tube wells that tapped underground aquifers. The water retrieved from the convenient, shallow wells, ranging from 100 to 200 feet deep, did not have to be boiled to kill germs, improving health and saving money. Unfortunately, no one had tested these subterranean sources for arsenic. “Created with the best of intentions, this clean-water system has been the single worst man-made calamity in Bangladesh in recent years,” Noorani said. “Although the World Bank loaned [Bangladesh] $32.4 million to act on the emergency, the race against time went badly. This is yet another example of how the world’s poor continue to die from unsafe water.” In an effort to make a small contribution toward helping the people in Bangladesh, Noorani set off on a three-part mission: design, construct and operate a pilot project that will purify arsenic-laden tube well water; provide medical help through financial donations; and raise awareness in the community about the consequences of arsenic and how to avoid arsenic laced water. “I feel very privileged to live and work in the United States, but with that privilege also comes the responsibility to share with others and to provide service. I gain great satisfaction from helping others,” Noorani said. The project has received more than $2 million from 38 grants. Thus far, Noorani has replaced 40 wells and has given financial assistance to more than 50 people who have been seriously affected by arsenic poisoning and who are in desperate need of medical services. Also, he has led countless community meetings, lecturing people about the dangers of arsenic. Looking forward, Noorani hopes to expand the project and to get other volunteers and organizations involved. He credits his late father, who was a high school teacher in Kalaroa for 50 years, for being his biggest influence. “I’m so proud of my father who was a brilliant teacher. To this day, he continues to be my personal guide and inspiration.”