I’m a Mennonite Central Committee alum concerned about southern Bangladesh, where I worked. Severe arsenic contamination of the shallow groundwater is causing about 43,000 Bangladeshi deaths per year, as well as cancers, heart and lung problems, cognitive disorders and other health issues. In the 1970s various organizations, including MCC, assisted in conversion from surface water (often contaminated with deadly diarrheal diseases) to presumably safer ground water for drinking and irrigation, not realizing the arsenic contamination. MCC had a small arsenic mitigation program but quit after leaving the south in 2008. That area and an adjacent area have the highest arsenic concentrations in Bangladesh.
South Bangladesh is very vulnerable to climate change, as much of the region is near sea level. Stronger storm surges already drive salt water further inland, producing saline soils, which are difficult to farm. This problem will only worsen.
MCC rightfully says it can’t do everything, but why did southern Bangladesh become such a low priority? These concerns align with MCC priorities. MCC’s fall 2020 A Common Place magazine states: “MCC and its partners continue . . . helping farmers adapt to climate change; ensuring access to safe, clean water; increasing the quality of education and training.” Small organizations can help. There’s much related research but a real need for extension, education and assistance to help the poor adapt.
Though MCC worked in Bangladesh for 50 years, it has published little about these problems, so few constituents are aware. I’ve created a website, arsenicbangladesh.com, telling more about the situation. Advocates are needed now.
Bill Schumacher, Columbus, Ohio