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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

Dr. Singh’s doctoral scholar Anand Kumar is visiting New York from September 1 through December 14, 2015. He is working with his co-supervisor, U.S. partner Dr. Alexander van Geen, primarily focusing on the dataset collected during field work in India. Anand is also attending a semester of relevant courses and analyzing water samples at Barnard College under the supervision of Dr. Brian Mailloux and at Lamont Doherty Observatory along with members of Dr. van Geen’s research team. Meanwhile, back in India, Dr. Singh and his group are working on predictive modeling using different digital elevation models (DEM) with resolutions ranging from 1km to 30m. They have also procured a 10m-resolution cartosat DEM for use in their modelling work. The team plans a field drilling campaign in Golaghat, Assam, December 16-20, during which they will be collaborating with Dr. van Geen and a few colleagues from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Guwahati. This joint field work is aimed at helping to build a partnership between TERI University and IIT Guwahati with the help of the U.S. partner.

As the project moves towards its currently planned end date of May 31, 2016, the PI, his doctoral student, and co-PI have authored a manuscript on some of their results entitled “Geogenic arsenic and fluoride in groundwater of the Indus basin.” The paper is being submitted for publication. In addition, Mr. Kumar made a presentation at Columbia University on the topic “Testing 13,000 wells with field kits for Arsenic and Fluoride in Punjab, India." Dr. van Geen also made a presentation on the project dataset at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan, during his visit to collaborate with the team’s Pakistani colleague, Dr. Abida Farooqi. That portion of the research is being supported by a separate grant under the Pakistan-U.S. Science and Technology Cooperation Program. Another offshoot of this PEER project—a collaboration developed with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at the suggestion of the USAID India Mission—was duly acknowledged by MIT’s Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE) in its latest evaluation report on Household Water Filters in Ahmedabad, India. With TERI University as a crucial partner in their evaluation work, CITE identified more than 100 different models of household water filters. As part of this effort, Dr. Singh and colleagues at TERI conducted nearly 400 surveys with consumers, suppliers, manufacturers, and nonprofit organizations to evaluate the existing water filters in three broad categories. Based on these categories, the central findings are listed in the report “Household Water Filter Evaluation Ahmedabad, India” as highlighted by MIT News

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