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Water plentiful in Bangladesh, but much of it deadly to drink

GOPALGANJ, Bangladesh (BP)–O.D. Boyd suspiciously eyed a test tube of well water in Bangladesh. The water looked clean and clear.
Looks can be deceiving.
“I’ve got one over there that’s as poison as a rattlesnake,” said Boyd, pointing to a vial filled with dark liquid. It looked pure, too, until the Kentucky Baptist volunteer analyzed it with a test kit. The analysis showed the water contained toxic levels of both bacteria and arsenic.
That’s crucial information for the people of Bangladesh, millions of whom depend on simple tube wells for drinking water. Over the years, Southern Baptist missionaries and Bangladesh Baptists have sunk hundreds of tube wells throughout the country.
Boyd, 73, a retired pastor from Cadiz, Ky., rushed to Bangladesh in October with four other Kentuckians. They assisted missionaries in testing hundreds of wells and training local Baptists and Bangladesh government workers how to carry out the tests.
The nation’s worst-ever flooding inundated Bangladesh between July and September, submerging up to 50,000 of the wells. Monsoon rains, seasonal tides from the Bay of Bengal and melting Himalayan snows from the north invade Bangladesh’s rivers every year. Deforestation of Asia’s highlands has only increased the flow of water and silt to low-lying Bangladesh — piling onto silt in rivers left uncleared from previous floods. This year the water had nowhere to go but over the riverbanks, flooding two-thirds of the country.
When the flood receded, it left behind untold destruction, including thousands of ruined or poisoned wells. The contamination can be eliminated — if it can be identified.
That’s where the Kentucky volunteers came in. A call for help from missionaries in Bangladesh went out through retired missionary Jim McKinley and the Kentucky Baptist Convention. The Little River and Laurel River Baptist associations, at opposite ends of the state, answered the call with five good men.
Volunteer Larry Kemp, a member of Cadiz Baptist Church, shut down his heavy equipment repair business for two weeks — at the cost of several hundred dollars a day.
“God called me and worked it out, so here I am,” said Kemp, cocking his NAPA baseball cap. He admitted no previous experience as a water tester, “but I have experience as a volunteer” — with 13 trips to Kenya and Haiti on his resume.
Boyd, a member of East Cadiz Baptist Church, was on his 14th overseas mission trip. Engineer Jim Outland, a member of Locust Grove Baptist Church in Cadiz, was on his first, but he came well-prepared. He brought enough extra food in his suitcase to last virtually the entire trip.
The food came in handy. While Boyd and Kemp headed south to Gopalganj district, Outland took a rugged solo journey to Sylhet in the far northeast. Later he joined up with volunteers Sam Watkins and Paul Filiatreau, members of Corinth Baptist Church in London, Ky., who worked at a breakneck pace in the northwest.
“I think in the first three days we checked 181 wells,” Filiatreau said. “One day we drove for four hours, rode a flatbed rickshaw for an hour, then walked eight or 10 miles in one direction to test a well, then turned around and tested wells in villages on the way back.”
Missionaries in Bangladesh specifically asked for volunteers who could deal with difficult conditions, and they weren’t disappointed.
“To be honest, we were apprehensive about five men coming in here and the time it would take to care for them,” said missionary R T Buckley. “But the way they came in and worked with the people blew our minds, and freed us up” to do other flood-related relief work.
Up to 70 percent of the wells the volunteers tested contained significant levels of health-threatening bacteria. How much bacteria was deposited by the floodwater and how much was already there is a question of vital interest to missionaries and Baptists. It also urgently concerns the Bangladesh government.
“Evidently most tube wells anywhere from 50 to 250 feet deep are affected with bacteria,” Buckley said. “What does that mean? If it’s the kind of bacteria that is harmful, then the whole country is faced with a catastrophic situation — bad drinking water even though it looks good.”
The presence of arsenic in many tube wells in Bangladesh — a deadly threat that has come to international awareness only in the last year or so — exacerbates the crisis.
Back home in Kentucky, volunteer Outland is experimenting with an idea for a simple, cheap water purification unit that can be mass-produced and attached to tube wells throughout Bangladesh.
If it works, countless lives may be saved.

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  • Erich Bridges