Alarming groundwater arsenic levels are spelling a death sentence in Bihar. In West Champaran, where the arsenic levels are higher than the accepted levels, there is no measure for either prevention or cure.
Ramkali Devi lost three children within a year, and hers is not the only home in Harkatwa to be shadowed by the pall of death. The village, situated in Bihar’s West Champaran district, sees up to a dozen untimely deaths every year, as well as a widespread prevalence of life-threatening diseases. Not everyone can identify the diseases but the root cause is clear to all; it is the water.
Studies conducted in other parts of the district have revealed high groundwater arsenic levels. Studies have also classified 16 districts of Bihar as arsenic-affected districts, and this list includes West Champaran. However, the state government still classifies only 13 districts as arsenic-affected, and West Champaran is not one of them.
The handpumps in the Harkatwa, mostly privately installed, are spewing water contaminated with arsenic in all likelihood; the WHO (World Health Organisation) classifies arsenic as one of the top ten chemicals of public health concern. Arsenic is also classified as a carcinogenic, a substance that causes cancer; apart from cancer, it is also known to cause skin and liver ailments.
According to the Bihar government, close to 1.7 million people are affected by arsenic contamination. But research by non-governmental groups estimates that up to 5 million people in the state could be drinking water contaminated with arsenic. Meanwhile, awareness efforts on part of the government are few and far between, and in the case of Harkatwa, nil.
Interestingly, the 2013 Groundwater Information Booklet for West Champaran published by the Ministry of Water Resources, says that the groundwater quality in the district is potable as per the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS); the section on the break-up of the water’s chemical composition does not even mention arsenic.
The WHO considers anything beyond 10 parts of arsenic per billion parts of water to be unsafe. But in India, the permissible level of arsenic is five times higher than the global WHO standard. This is attributed to the lack of alternative water resources in many areas.
Studies, however, have revealed that parts of Bihar have groundwater arsenic concentration of up to 3,880 parts per billion.
A study in Khap Tola, another village in West Champaran, found that all handpumps tested had more than 10 parts of arsenic and 80 percent of them had more than 50 parts. The study also established an inverse correlation between the depth of the groundwater source of the handpump and the levels of arsenic. This correlation is common knowledge, especially among the residents of Harkatwa.
“Our handpumps are 30-40 feet deep, how much more can a poor family afford to dig?” asks Manbhawati Devi.
Another resident says that they want the government to install handpumps that are at least 100-150 feet deep. In the study in Khap Tola, the highest levels of arsenic were found in handpumps 15-35 metres deep, which roughly amounts to 50-115 feet.
Research has also suggested that open wells or dug wells are a better option than handpumps, because in an open well, the water is exposed to oxygen as a result of which, substances like arsenic and iron turn into oxides and settle at the bottom, being insoluble in water.
In Harkatwa, the community now wants the government to install new handpumps which have a deeper groundwater source and make the defunct handpumps functional as well.
But unfortunately, solutions and interventions have not been sustainable or free from problems either. A study evaluating the successes and failures of arsenic mitigation in Bihar shows that technological intervention like the installation of arsenic filters requires regular maintenance checks which had not been happening at the sites surveyed by the study. Improper installation was also identified as a major problem; for instance, if there is no proper disposal system for the sludge from the filter, it only seeps back into the groundwater.
The study also found a lack of awareness about these issues. Even in Tanju’s report, while everyone knew that the village was plagued by a water-related issue, no one had any information about what kind of issue and what kind of illnesses it was causing. The study also reported ‘social conflicts’ as a barrier to mitigation, it was found that the owners of the land where the filters were installed did not allow many other village residents to use the filter; this was linked to caste and norms of untouchability, something that has determined people’s access of water for eons.
Intervention, therefore, cannot be only technological. It will have to be driven by information and awareness and will have to factor in structures of hierarchy like caste that have long dictated people’s access to and use of resources.
Video by Community Correspondent Tanju Devi
Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV Editorial Team