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Partnerships for enhanced engagement in research (PEER) SCIENCE
Cycle 2 (2012 Deadline)

Targeting low-arsenic and low-fluoride groundwater to reduce exposure in rural Punjab, India

PI:  Chander Kumar Singh (TERI University); with co-PIs Saumitra Mukherjee, Jawaharlal Nehru University; Umesh Kumar Garg, Adesh Institute of Engineering and Technology; and Manpreet Singh Bhatti, Guru Nanak Dev University
U.S. Partner: Alexander van Geen (Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University)
Project Dates: August 2013 to May 2016

Indonesia Partnership Picture A
A research team tests water from a local well for arsenic and other contaminants (Photo courtesy Dr. Singh)

Groundwater drawn by millions of handpumps in several regions of India, including Punjab state, causes serious health problems due to elevated concentrations of arsenic (As) and fluoride (F). Rocks and sediments are the natural source of As and F entering groundwater, although the buildup of concentrations in certain areas could have been enhanced by human modification of the hydrological cycle. A key feature of the distribution of As and F in handpump water is that it is spatially highly variable but relatively stable through time. Many rural households of Punjab with an unsafe handpump live within walking distance of a safe handpump, but the vast majority of handpumps have never been tested. This project seeks to assess the extent to which the spatial distribution of As and F in groundwater of the affected region of Punjab can be predicted and the temporal scale on which groundwater As and F concentrations are likely to vary, if at all. The approach relies on (1) testing a large number of handpumps in villages distributed along two representative transects and (2) using this unique data set to target more detailed process studies based on drilling and installation of monitoring wells at two geological transitions. The new field data will make it possible to test several hypotheses regarding the impact of various factors and processes on the local hydraulic regime and groundwater As and F concentrations.

The lack of testing of handpumps in this region has led people to drink their groundwater without knowing whether it is safe or unsafe. Besides its other research aspects, this project will test approximately 20,000 handpumps for As and F in alluvial aquifers of this region of India. Measurements in the field using field kits, with quality control provided by measurements in the laboratory, will demonstrate to local authorities that a blanket testing campaign is warranted and feasible using current technology. Assuming that 10 people are dependent on each handpump for their daily water needs, that half of the wells tested turn out to be unsafe, and half of the population with unsafe water would switch to a neighboring safe well, then testing alone will cause a marked reduction in exposure and improved health for around 50,000 people. This extensive data set, complemented with process studies at two geological transitions, will yield predictions that will help identify thousands of specific villages where future testing should be prioritized.
Summary of Recent Activities

As of April 2015, Dr. Singh and his colleagues have completed testing of some 13,000 wells in approximate 210 villages. They were also able to compile data from 1,000 wells in Pakistan with the help of Abida Farooqi of Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and Alexander van Geen, the U.S. partner on the project. The researchers are now focusing on comparing geochemical mechanisms on both sides of the Indo-Pakistani border. Thus far, they have found that the geochemistry for enrichment of arsenic and fluoride on both sides of the border are entirely different even though both are part of the Indus Basin. They have documented evidence that the evaporative as well as oxidative mechanisms are in place in the Pakistani part of Indus basin, a scenario that is entirely different from that observed in the Indian part of the basin. Basic content analysis of the untreated groundwater samples has been completed, with 24 percent samples having greater than 10 μg/L arsenic, 8 percent having greater than 1.5 mg/L fluoride, and 25 percent having nitrate greater than 45mg/L compared to World Health Organization standards. The first batch of samples has been sent to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory for ion chromatography analysis and another batch will soon be sent for inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry analysis.

In the coming months, the team will be working on predictive modeling using different digital elevation models, i.e., different resolutions ranging from 1km to 30m. A manuscript comparing the geochemical conditions on the two sides of Indian border has been circulated to all collaborators for their comments prior to its submission to a journal for publication. The group is also raising funds for their proposal to convene a gathering of physical scientists, social scientists, stakeholders, and policy makers to take a comprehensive look at the arsenic problem in South and Southeast Asia and develop a set of useful recommendations for actions that should be taken.

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