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Arsenic Woes: Why India Needs To Rethink Groundwater Consumption

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Arsenic contamination or arsenic poisoning is a widely common phenomenon in many parts of India. In some states, arsenic is naturally found along with high contents of fluoride but the consumption of water with presence of such elements in high concentration is a matter to worry about.

I had the opportunity to get in touch with one of my seniors, Ms Sonal Bindal from TERI SAS, New Delhi, whose doctoral thesis was on arsenic contamination of groundwater in Uttar Pradesh. A total of 40 districts in the state are exposed to high concentration of arsenic in groundwater. Balia, Barabankhi, Gorakhpur, Ghazipur, Gonda, Faizabad and Lakhimpur Kheri are the worst affected districts. Majority of them are in the floodplains of Ganga, Rapti and Ghaghara rivers.

Ten other districts with moderate risk of arsenic contamination are Shahjahanpur, Unnao, Chandauli, Varanasi, Pratapgarh, Kushinagar, Mau, Balrampur, Deoria and Siddharthnagar. About 78% of the population in the state lives in rural areas and depends on ground water for irrigation, drinking, cooking and other domestic use. The risk of exposure to arsenic is much higher in rural areas than cities as piped water supply is not available in most villages. The study was led by one of the professors named Dr CK Singh from TERI SAS and Sonal was involved in the study as well. The results of the study were published in the journal Water Research.

Arsenic (As) is an odourless and tasteless metalloid widely distributed in the earth’s crust. Arsenic and its compounds occur in crystalline, powder, amorphous or vitreous forms. It usually occurs in trace quantities in all rocks, soil, water and air. Exposure to arsenic in the environment can happen via both natural and anthropogenic means.

Naturally, it can happen through leaching of ambient arsenic in groundwater from sediments containing arsenic bearing minerals; leaching and percolation of arsenic in soils. Through anthropogenic activities, it can happen via agrochemicals, wood preservatives, industrial sources, mineral processing, acid mine drainage, burning of fossil fuels, etc. Arsenic exposure has cause skin lesions, skin cancer, bladder, lungs and cardiovascular diseases as well as reduced intellectual function in children.

In South Asia, arsenic contamination in groundwater in the Ganga-Brahmaputra fluvial plains in India and Padma-Meghna fluvial plains in Bangladesh has been found to have a huge impact on human health and its consequences have been reported as the world’s biggest natural groundwater calamities. In India, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh in the flood plains of the Ganga, Assam and Manipur in the flood plains of the Brahmaputra and Imphal rivers and Rajnandgaon village in Chhattisgarh have been reported to be affected by arsenic contamination in groundwater. (Ghosh and Singh, nd)

Areas in India affected by water contamination. (Photo: springer.com)

According to WHO prescribed limits, the current recommendation of arsenic in drinking water is 10 µg/L. However, developing countries like India and Bangladesh are exposed to limits exceeding 100 µg/L. The permissible limit of arsenic in India in absence of an alternative source is – 0.05 mg/l (50 μg/l).

The presence of arsenic in drinking water is called arsenicosis. It is interesting to note that some foods, especially of marine origin, have high concentrations of arsenic and the consumption of such food items also results in a surge in the concentration of arsenic in urine. Arsenic accumulates very fast in the hair and nails compared to other tissues as a result of surface contamination.

The most viable options to tackle arsenic contamination of groundwater resources are as follows:

  • In-situ remedy of aquifers by decontaminating arsenic from infested aquifers.
  • Use of groundwater after ex-situ treatment by arsenic removal devices.
  • Use of surface water source as an alternate to the contaminated groundwater source.
  • Exploring possibilities of tapping risk free deeper aquifers for supply of arsenic free groundwater.
  • Increasing awareness to encourage people to invest in rainwater harvesting.

It is interesting to note that all the areas worst affected by arsenic are located in eastern and north eastern parts of India along with neighbouring Bangladesh, thereby exposing millions of people to groundwater arsenic woes. It is also important to note that all these areas are extremely vulnerable owing to its proximity to coastal areas.

Its topography, geography, high population density, low socio-economic conditions are factors to be considered, apart from dealing with regular natural calamities like floods, cyclones, earthquakes, and tropical diseases to name a few.

It is about time we shifted our focus on this public health menace and demand to have rightful policy intervention in place.

Featured image for representative purpose only.
Featured image source: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Flickr.
This post is also a part of YKA's first user-run series, Water Wars, by Zeba Ahsan. Join the conversation by adding a post here.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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