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Arab Healthy Water Association

For future generations, one drop of water at a time...

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The Arab Healthy Water Association is a non-governmental, non-profit body,
legally registered at the Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA) by decree No. 6086/2005, Cairo-Egypt.


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Unintended Consequences with Adverse Human Health and Environmental Impacts in International Development

Barney P. Popkin, CHMM
July 15, 2005

"Communication is the illusion that we understand each other." Dr. Carl N. Hodges, Puerto Penasco, Sonora, Mexico, 1999

Over the years, one hears stories of projects with unintended consequences in international development, some funny, some not. Here are some such. You decide.

Of course, you may be thinking of the unwise introduction of non-native species, like mongoose in Hawaii to kill snakes, but then these free-roaming mongooses attack pets and even small children. Or the introduction of the rapidly growing eucalyptus tree along the California coast for wind and soil protection, though these trees blow over at high winds, burn like hell because of their high sap content, and have no timber value.


In the mid 1990s, I had a project in several Indonesian islands across the Malaca Straits from Singapore. On the most developed island, there was a hospital which grew its own food for its staff and patients. It also had an incinerator for burning its medical wastes. Its solid waste and trash were hauled to a canyon which had become a dumpsite with over 150,000 unauthorized residents engaging in recycling, reusing, and other activities, legal and otherwise like trafficking, prostitution, drug sales, etc., though they themselves were illegally in place. The incinerator was either ON or OFF without any controls for the burn temperature. The air emissions were largely caught in bags and recycled as soil amendments to the vegetable crops, which did well due to the high calcium content of the flue gases but of course accumulated heavy metals which are concentrated in leafy vegetables, not to mention the conversion of plastics to dioxins at low-burn temperatures. But of course, these are chronic issues and may not be detectable in the relatively short life-spans. Nonetheless, not nice.


There have been several cases where donors sponsored potable water well drilling programs, only to find out years later that the supplied groundwater from wells in Bangladesh was naturally high in arsenic. Now, donors typically require sampling and testing of water for drinking water parameters, including arsenic.


Speaking of arsenic, in the early 1990s, there was a case in Taiwan where about 50,000 people became quite ill which was traced to inadvertent arsenic poisoning. Seems that these heavily rice-eating people bought rice in bags which were reused from storing arsenic pesticides. This gave toxicologists and epidemiologists a great opportunity to do a large-scale, human study, which is untypical for human subjects. But the idea was soon abandoned as the local population already had a high heavy metals background in their diet from eating the metal-accumulating organs in seawater life.


In Pune, India, newborn infants were typically way below average birth weights which led to high mortality. The World Bank encouraged Indian mothers to feed boiled cow's milk to their infants. The babies gained weight rapidly but also turned yellowish and developed several internal organ disorders which looked like cirrhosis. No, they weren't drinking booze, but they were drinking milk boiled in copper pots and inadvertently suffered from copper toxicity.


In the great rivers of Nepal and India, the poorer dead may be dumped after wrapping in white cloth. I've seen this in Kathmandu during the dry season where the river flow is mostly raw sewage. In Verinazi, turtle were introduced into the river to eat the decaying human flesh for sanitation purposes with the expectation that the Indians would not eat the turtles. However, the Indians soon learned to eat the turtles which ended the turtle-solution.


Western toilets were installed but soon became clogged with rocks, as smooth stones are used there for "cleansing."


After the horrible December 26, 2004 tsunami, donors provided survivors with sodium hypochlorite solutions to be used to disinfect potable water to make it drinkable. When asked if one woman was using the solution for disinfection, she replied, "Why no sir, that is diarrhea medicine." I was thinking, so if you get pregnant, then you look for condoms?


To help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS, South African sex workers were trained to use condoms as demonstrated by placing the condoms on their thumbs. Consequently, they would wear condoms on their thumbs when "doing it."


At a river water treatment plant for oil field injection, an oil-field contractor found a large cache of sodium dichromate and covered it over in place with sand and asphalt and excavated and filled over 90 sealed drums for temporary storage. However, the drums were not locked up and no monitoring and controls were at the site, adjacent to a large village. When I got there in late 2003, I found dug up holes in the asphalt and only three or four drums left in the open warehouse. The sand was dug up for its construction use and the drums were taken for use to harvest drinking water from roof tops and to make cooking grills.

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