The Next Bomb: Arsenic to follow the Kidney Disease and Dengu
Posted on September 18th, 2016
By Garvin Karunaratne
Firstly the Kidney Disease, then the Dengu and what I think is coming over the horizon- is Arsenic. No one upto now has stated that the third, Arsenic is on its way. But signs are there and unless immediate action is taken it will take a major toll. Both the Kidney Disease and Dengu are out of control today. Both take toll of thousands annually and the toll doubles every few years.
Let me give my opinion on the Kidney Disease. I have given my opinion earlier too but no one has picked it up. To start with it has to be accepted that the Kidney Disease is of recent origin. If the kidney disease had been there our ancient irrigation system and the ancient tank civilization that has lasted on a sustainable basis for centuries would not be there.
It is my opinion that the kidney disease started with the excessive use of fertilizer, weedicides and such chemicals.
Something drastic did happen and the kidney disease erupted.
I happen to know the Dry Zone , its agriculture systems well because I have worked long in the Agrarian Services. I was one of the pioneer administrators in introducing the use of new varieties of paddy and enlisting the farmers to use inorganic fertilizers to boost yields. I introduced the Paddy Lands Act to the Anuradhapura District in 1963, organized cultivation committees, democratically elected , three hundred of them. It was a vast staff of three Assistant Commissioners, ten Divisional Officers and some fifty to sixty overseers working, holding meetings till late in the night, planning paddy cultivation and the use and supply of fertilizer and chemicals. That was a yeoman effort including weekends working 14 or more hours on most days. It was a combined effort of our Agrarian Services and the technical agricultural department that enabled the breakthrough- the Green Revolution came to stay. The farmers got bounty harvests and benefited.
Today we have got cracking with this Kidney Disease, as it has reached almost epidemic status- some 40,000 dead and a mass of people going through medical attention. Farmers do not have the funds to travel for dialysis at hospitals far from home. Dialysis machines offer a solution but our hospitals are also short of dialysis machines. The use of Glyphospate has been banned and water is even distributed by bowsers. To my mind all what has been done is in the short term, because we have failed to find the real cause.
It is my opinion that the real cause is the breakdown of the agricultural extension service..
It is sad that many authorities will not believe this.
How did the extension system breakdown?
Firstly the World Bank decided to sabotage the agricultural extension system that Third World countries had developed through imposing the Training & Visit System(TVS) of Agricultural Extension, by which the agricultural extension staff were required to contact the farmers direct, without using any of the farmer’s organizations like cooperatives and cultivation committees. Accordingly the agricultural extension staff had no method of working with the entire farming population. At best the extension staff met a few farmers and this precluded the majority of farmers from being involved. This was a system that was suitable for a context where there were few farmers like in the USA. In Third World countries the farmers were legion in number and they could never be contacted by any extension staff unless they use cooperatives and other farmer’s organizations. This TVS was imposed on our countries by force. As pointed out by me as far back as 1983,
“What happened was the imposition of a system akin to the US on the Third World… The TVS is financed under IDA Credit, where funds are brought in on foreign aid to meet the salaries of local officers and servicing costs. The IDA Credit is based on a design that has a repayment grace period of ten years, so that the Government that takes the loan has nothing to worry about the consequences of re payment… The writer is of the opinion that this is the main cause for the adoption of the TVS.”(From Administering Rural Development in the Third World, University Press, 1983) It was my contention then that this TVS was intended to cripple the extension services built up by Third World Countries. This is a part of the sabotage that is evident today in the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programme, which entices countries to give up exchange controls, import controls, liberalise the use of foreign exchange, and depend on borrowed finance leading to our countries getting into debt. Debt was the weapon used to bring our countries to a ‘colonial’ subservient state. My book, How the IMF Ruined Sri Lanka, Godages tells this sad story.
In the case of Sri Lanka two other changes were made. Firstly the cultivation committees were abolished and with this change there were no farmer organizations at the village level.
Secondly President Premadasa with one stroke of the pen promoted all agricultural overseers to be Grama Niladharis and with this the agricultural extension staff no longer existed at the village level. The overseers had an year’s training. The qualified extension staff was at the Divisional Level and each Agricultural Instructor had around five to thirteen thousand farmers. Years later Niyamakas were appointed, to handle the work of the agricultural overseers. These Niyamakas have no training whatsoever and with this the farmers had no one to contact for advice., Instead of farmers looking for advice, the Niyamakas are actually the laughing stock of the farmers even today.
Due to these changes the farmers had no one to guide them and they commenced using fertilizer, applying weedicides etc as they pleased and this to my mind is the cause for the spread of the kidney disease.
To add to the problem today we have a system of private companies providing advice. This is a very ineffective extension service.
Sadly our experts have failed to identify this very important cause. Ministries of Agriculture do not wish to admit that the agricultural extension system is ineffective.
It is sad to realize that the entire farming community in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka will be wiped out within a few decades unless immediate action is taken.. This is happening within our very eyes. The banning of chemicals is not the answer. The banning of Glyphosphate has already reduced the crop in paddy and tea. Scientists including Professor Chandre Dharmawardena have opined that banning chemicals that are essential for cultivation is not the remedy. The remedy is to ensure that there is an effective and systematic extension system like what we had when there were trained agricultural. Overseers and vibrant farmer institutions like cultivation committees and multipurpose cooperatives at the village level.
An attempt is being made to get farmers to use traditional varieties and to use compost- organic fertilizer. Traditional varieties yield only half the crop of new varieties and crop production will suffer with the result that we will have to import rice. The entire Green Revolution was based on using new varieties with the use of inorganic fertilizer. An effective extension service has to guide the farmers in the use of chemicals.
The remedy is simple- to train the Niyamakas and also to strengthen the staff of Agricultural Instructors at the Divisional level aimed at establishing an effective extension system.
Dengu has reached almost epidemic levels and many people have died. Dengu eradication commenced in the Nineties and then hordes of individual spraying staff were busy everyday, swarming out of the Urban Councils. They could be seen visiting the homes of people and spraying. What was not evident is what they sprayed. They took with them the chemical which they mixed with water and then sprayed. The problem was that they sprayed with the chemical only if they were paid a santhosam lavishly. Otherwise they did spray but with water.
I pointed this out in an article that appeared in the Press but no one took notice. I suggested the system which was followed to spray DDT to eradicate malaria. I served in Anuradhapura and the spraying was done by a team of sprayers with a supervisor.
We are today reaping the effect of our own folly. It is time that we even resort to spraying DDT, but in an effective manner like what we did in the case of malaria.
Further we today concentrate only on home gardens and the premises that we can see. We have conveniently forgotten the drains on either side of the roads which are full of putrid water and infested with dengu and other mosquitoes. It is essential that this is done by a team equipped with iron rods and at times tractors may be required to remove large slabs of concrete. I suggested this but no one has picked it up. When slabs are used crevices should be kept to enable spraying.
The Arsenic Bomb is coming. This is due to the fact that almost ninety nine percent of the bottled water sold in Sri Lanka comes from tube wells.
Tube wells were concentrated on in the green revolution in Bangladesh and the benefits were extolled in terms of crop production. However the incessant pumping of water from a particular strata of soil has made the water have a concentration of arsenic. Today after decades of extracting water through tube wells it has been found that the arsenic content is high. The result is arsenic in human beings that causes death through Cancer. The arsenic epidemic in Bangladesh is well documented. The Bulletin of the WHO states:
“Exposure to arsenic through drinking water sourced from tube wells is a global health problem that is particularly devastating in Bangladesh. (It is) estimated that 35 to 77 million people are involved…. The largest mass poisoning in history…. Causing cancers of the skin, bladder, kidney and lung.”( From Flanagen, Johnson & Zheng, “Arsenic in Tube Well Water in Bangladesh”, in Bulletin of WHO, 14/09/2012)
Today 43,000 people are killed annually in Bangladesh..
We can easily get over this problem if we concentrate on our springs and streams as the source for bottled water. . I have worked on minor irrigation in the districts of Nuwara Eliya, Kandy and Kegalla and can state that it is easy to find streams and springs from which bottled water can be harnessed. The Sinharaja Area in the Matara District can also be a source.
Some authorities may think that my suggestion re bottled water is far fetched. But unless this fact is taken into consideration immediately we will have the Arsenic bomb on our population.
My suggestions re the Kidney Disease and Dengu have gone unheeded. Let us take immediate steps to eradicate the Kidney Disease and Dengu and also take immediate action to ensure that bottled water is sourced at springs to avoid the emergence of Arsenic.
I am sad to realize that I was in charge of the team that spread the use of new varieties of paddy and the use of inorganic fertilizer and chemicals. Little did I know then that five decades later our valiant effort then will cause death to the farming population in the Dry Zone.
Former SLAS, Government Agent, Matara
17 the September 2016