Arsenic Threat Reflects Risk of Unregulated Development
In Bangladesh for example, contaminated surface water caused health problems for many years by transmitting diseases like diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid, cholera, and hepatitis (WHO). Over the past 30 years, UNICEF and the World Bank advocated digging millions of tube wells as a quick fix solution to control these illnesses. However, programs to provide “safe” water simultaneously exposed millions of people to unsafe arsenic levels. It is now estimated that as many as 1 in 5 of the 8 million-plus tube wells constructed in Bangladesh contain arsenic rich water (Wikipedia).
Though not to the same extent, the water problems in Cambodia are quite similar. Due to a shortage of safe, surface water, over the past 20 years development organizations built thousands of wells across the country, but many of the wells were not tested first for arsenic and other dangerous substances. As a Cambodian NGO employee stated in the IRIN article, “In the 1990s, a lot of poorly planned NGOs built wells for villages and did not fully understand the long-term situation after they left. Many were short-term volunteer programs that didn’t teach people about the dangers of arsenic from their wells.” Recent testing by organizations like Resource Development International has shown that wells in villages across the country are contaminated with arsenic, exposing hundreds of thousands to its dangers.
This is a clear example of how unmonitored and poorly designed development projects can cause long-term negative consequences that far outweigh their short-term benefits. There is growing debate in Cambodia about the actual benefits of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on social and economical development initiatives throughout the country. While many organizations provide essential resources and services, there are justifiable concerns that collectively, foreign aid dollars are creating dependencies and providing only short-term solutions that do not have Cambodians’ long-term interests in mind.
Lacking a strong, national government body to monitor development programs, and only minimal cooperation amongst the thousands of NGOs working in Cambodia (who often compete for the same funding), the development track can perhaps best be described as multidirectional. The eventual success or failure of the development sector depends largely on the willingness of organizations to honestly evaluate the effectiveness and sustainability of their own programs. NGOs need also to cooperate further with others in their sector, coordinating their efforts and sharing information that promotes best practices and policies.
For its part, PEPY strives to ensure its programs are driven by the communities where we work. Though there is still much to improve, PEPY has learned a great deal from its early mistakes and is now more diligent in monitoring the effects of its social and educational initiatives. By building partnerships and networks with other NGOs in the educational field, PEPY will improve its programs and hopefully avoid the pitfalls so common in the development world. PEPY recognizes that the most positive outcomes of development programs will come when organizations work together to share ideas, successes, and failures—only then will local projects actuate national change.