Deadly Wells in Bangladesh

19 Pages Posted: 1 Oct 2020

See all articles by Peter Marcel Debaere

Peter Marcel Debaere

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business; Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR)


This case allows instructors to lay out the challenges of providing universal access to safe drinking water in some developing and emerging countries—one of the current UN development goals. The challenge across developing countries is to find long-lasting and sustainable solutions, and to realize that present answers to the challenge may be a far cry from these criteria. The discussion aims to address the complex and multifaceted nature of water supply in developing countries, and to emphasize that many of the assumptions made in advanced economies may not apply. The aim is to search for the best (long-lasting and sustainable) solutions, admitting there is no silver bullet, even though some alternatives are clearly better than others.



Oct. 1, 2019

Deadly Wells in Bangladesh

In the early 1980s, K.C. Saha from the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine in India successfully related skin lesions in the Indian state of West Bengal to arsenic in groundwater. In 1992, researchers under the direction of Dipankar Chakraborti from the School of Environmental Studies at Jadavpur University came across an unusual female patient while they were active in the arsenic-affected village of Gobindapur in West Bengal. She was the only one in her West Bengali family with lesions, but she had migrated from Bangladesh after her marriage. It turned out that many of her Bangladeshi relatives had similar lesions, and she had noticed lesions in residents of neighboring Bangladesh villages as well. Soon suspicions were confirmed of arsenic contamination in Bangladesh. In 1994, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) were notified but slow to take action, as were Bangladeshi institutions. Reportedly in 1993, Bangladesh's Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE) had already confirmed arsenic contamination in tube wells, which were PVC pipes with a cast-iron hand pump on top. The country and the international health community awoke to the reality and magnitude of the challenge in 1998, when an international conference was convened in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka. In 2000, the Bulletin of the World Health Organization described Bangladesh's predicament in the strongest possible terms, which would resonate for many years to come:

Bangladesh is grappling with the largest mass poisoning of a population in history because groundwater used for drinking has been contaminated with naturally occurring inorganic arsenic. It is estimated that of the 125million inhabitants of Bangladesh, between 35million and 77million are at risk of drinking contaminated water. The scale of this environmental disaster is greater than any seen before; it is beyond the accidents at Bhopal, India, in 1984, and Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986.

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Keywords: economics, decision-making, global standards, crisis management, water access, UN development goals, water quality

Suggested Citation

Debaere, Peter Marcel, Deadly Wells in Bangladesh. Darden Case No. UVA-GEM-0158, Available at SSRN:

Peter Marcel Debaere (Contact Author)

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business ( email )

P.O. Box 6550
Charlottesville, VA 22906-6550
United States


Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR)

United Kingdom

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