Could Social Media Have Prevented the Largest Mass Poisoning of a Population in History?

I just finished reading a phenomenal book. Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, was co-authored by my good friend Andrew Zolli of PopTech fame and his won-derful colleague Ann Marie Healey. I could easily write several dozen blog posts on this brilliant book. Consider this the first of possibly many more posts to follow. Some will summarize and highlight insights that really resonated with me while others like the one below will use the book as a spring board to explore related questions and themes.

In one of the many interesting case studies that Andrew and Ann discuss in their book, the following one may very well be the biggest #FAIL in all of development history. The vast majority of Bangladeshis did not have access to clean water during the early 1970s, which contributed to numerous diseases that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives every year. So UNICEF launched a “nationwide program to sink shallow tube wells across the country. Once a small hand pump was installed to the top of the tube, clean water rose quickly to the surface.”

By the end of the 1970s, over 300,000 tube wells had been installed and some 10 million more went into operation by the late 1990s. With access to clean water, the child mortality rate dropped by more than half, from 24% to less than 10%. UNICEF’s solution was thus “touted as a model for South Asia and the world.” In the early 1980s, however, signs of widespread arsenic poising began to appear across the country. “UNICEF had mistaken deep water for clean water and never tested its tube wells for this poison.” WHO soon predicted that “one in a hundred Bangladeshis drinking from the contaminated wells would die from an arsenic-related cancer.” The government estimated that about half of the 10 million wells were contaminated. A few years later, WHO announced that Bangladesh was “facing the largest mass poisoning of a population in history.”

In a typical move that proves James Scott’s thesis Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, the Bangladeshi government partnered with the World Bank to paint the sprout of each well red if the water was contaminated and green if safe to drink. Five years and over $40 million later, the project had only been able to test half of the 10 million wells. “Officially, this intervention was hailed as almost instantaneous success.” But the widespread negative socio-economic impact and community-based conflicts that resulted from this one-off, top-down intervention calls into question the purported success of this intervention.

As Andrew and Ann explain, water use in Bangladesh (like many other countries) starts and ends with women and girls. “They are the ones who will determine if a switch to a green well is warranted because they are the ones who fetch the water in water numerous times a day.” The location of these green wells will largely determine “whether or not women and girls can access them in a way that is deemed socially appropriate.” As was the case with many of these wells, “the religious and cultural norms impeded a successful switch.”

In addition, “negotiating use of someone else’s green well was an act fraught with potential conflict.” As a result, some still used water from red-painted wells. In fact, “reports started to come in of families and communities chipping away at the red paint on their wells,” with some even repainting theirs with green. Such was the stigma of being a family linked to a red well. Indeed, “young girls living within the vicinity of contaminated wells [recall that there were an estimated 5 million such wells] suffered from diminishing marriage prospects, if they were able to marry at all.” In addition, because the government was unable to provide alternative sources of clean water for half of the communities with a red well, “many women and girls returned to surface water sources like ponds and lakes, significantly more likely to be contaminated with fecal pathogens.” As a result, “researchers estimated that abandonment of shallow tube wells increased a household’s risk of diarrheal disease by 20%.”

In 2009, a water quality survey carried out by the government found that “approximately 20 million people were still being exposed to excessive quantities of arsenic.” And so, “while the experts and politicians discuss how to find a solution for the unintended consequences of the intervention, the people of Bangladesh continue bringing their buckets to the wells while crossing their fingers behind their backs.”

I have several questions (and will omit the ones that start with WTF?). Could social media have mitigated this catastrophic disaster? It took an entire decade for UNICEF and the Bangladeshi government to admit that massive arsenic poisoning was taking place. And even then, when UNICEF finally responded to the crisis in 1998, they said “We are wedded to safe water, not tube wells, but at this time tube wells remain a good, affordable idea and our program will go on.” By then it was too late anyway since arsenic in the wells had “found their way into the food supply. Rice irrigated with the tube wells was found to contain more than nine times the normal amount of arsenic. Rice concentrated the poison, even if one managed to avoid drinking contaminated well water, concentrated amounts would just up in one’s food.”

Could social media—had they existed in the 1980s—been used to support the early findings published by local scientists 15 years before UNICEF publicly recognized (but still ignored) the crisis? Could scientists and activists have launched a public social media campaign to name and shame? Could hundreds of pictures posted on Flickr and videos uploaded to YouTube made a difference by directly revealing the awful human consequences of arsenic poisoning?

Could an Ushahidi platform powered by FrontlineSMS have been used to create a crowdsourced complaints mechanism? Could digital humanitarian volunteers from the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) have worked with local counterparts to create a live country-wide map of concerns posted anonymously by girls and women across thousands of communities in Bangladesh? Could an interactive voice response (IVR) system like this one been set up to address concerns and needs of illiterate individuals? Could a PeaceTXT approach have been used to catalyze behavior change? Can these technologies build more resilient societies that allow them to bounce back from crises like these?

And since mass arsenic poisoning is still happening in Bangladesh today, 40 years after UNICEF’s first intervention, are initiatives like the ones described above being tried at all?

4 responses to “Could Social Media Have Prevented the Largest Mass Poisoning of a Population in History?

  1. On the first question: ‘Could social media been used to support the early findings published by local scientists 15 years before UNICEF publicly recognized the crisis?’

  2. Amazing story and question….!
    On the first one – ‘could social media been used to support the early findings published by local scientists 15 years before UNICEF publicly recognized the crisis?’, it questions among other things how much you trust the global intelligence of the people… If you ask: could media coverage help tackle such public issues, most Westeners and especially Americans, with infinite faith in democracy & transparency, will say yes. Yet we see numerous failures, from wars to climate change and public health issues, where evidence is discussed, filtered, distorted and handed over, with very limited or delayed results in terms fo public action. What I find interesting then is how much social media may be different from traditional media in that matter, with focus effects, resonnances, engagement….

  3. You actually give one answer here, on this reflection on a related matter (“can live crisis help prevent mass atrocities?”), when you quote: ‘access to conversation is more important, politically, than access to information.’
    Oh, Patrick, you are an inifinite source of inspiring connections!

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