Helping a Country in Crisis

Matthew Karanian ’82 provides infrastructure and information to keep Bangladeshi citizens safe from contaminated water
by Nicole Gull McElroy ’00
Matthew Karanian ’82 says his 35-year law career is rooted in the art of storytelling. Early in his career as a litigation attorney, he learned to take command of a courtroom with a compelling story to convince a judge or jury to deliver a particular verdict.

Today, as the legal counsel to an environmental nonprofit, he’s using his storytelling skills to minimize health risks for vulnerable people in remote communities.

Karanian is an attorney and policy adviser for Environmental Strategies International (ESI), a nonprofit that partners with governments, international agencies, academics and community leaders to design and implement solutions to environmental problems. Karanian, who runs a private law practice in Pasadena, Calif., joined ESI on a volunteer basis in 2015. He traveled to Bangladesh earlier this year and will return this fall to support ESI’s efforts to provide clean, safe water to local communities.

In 2018, ESI and Chemists Without Borders (CWB) tested water wells in Bangladesh and discovered the water contained dangerously high levels of arsenic. “The World Health Organization called the situation in Bangladesh ‘the largest mass poisoning of a population in history,’ ” Karanian says.

Matthew Karanian '82
Photo: Bared Maronian
Matthew Karanian ’82 credits his experience as a student journalist at Bucknell as having influenced his humanitarian work.
Because arsenic is naturally occurring in the groundwater of Bangladesh, many shallow wells are contaminated. ESI and CWB work together to drill deep wells near public spaces, such as schools, mosques and temples, and town centers, to provide accessible clean water. Because arsenic is a tasteless, colorless and odorless contaminant that produces adverse health effects after prolonged ingestion (you don’t immediately get sick), some citizens don’t recognize that there’s an issue with their existing water source. A big part of Karanian’s work is convincing locals to use the new wells — an instance in which storytelling can help make the case.

Karanian says his efforts in Bangladesh are linked to an early influential life experience — working as a student journalist for The Bucknellian.

“My time as an editor for The Bucknellian really impacted my life, my career and my approach to social issues,” says Karanian, who majored in political science. “When you’re 19 or 20, your brain is still forming, and during that influential time in my life, The Bucknellian helped me form a brain that understood the importance of communication, collaboration and speaking out about issues of importance. We used stories to help the community understand the day’s issues and influence outcomes. That’s what I’m doing today.”