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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 July 2017

2-61 Kumar Lab Test
Team member Anand Kumar preparing and analyzing samples at Barnard College using an ion chromatograph (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 and his team have completed blanket testing of bore wells and hand pumps in 10 selected villages, including testing of the water quality parameters (for example, for arsenic, sulphates, nitrates, and iron) using field test kits suggested by the U.S. partner Dr. Alexander van Geen. A total of 1000 wells were analyzed in the above mentioned 10 villages. To gain a better understanding of the mechanism of arsenic contamination in groundwater in Punjab, the team has selected 10 additional sites, with drilling rescheduled for January 23-30, 2017. Most of the selected sites lie along the international boundary of India and Pakistan, and state elections are scheduled for February 4, so the team is awaiting permission from the State Government, Dept. of Water Supply and Sanitation, Punjab. The PI is in touch with the relevant government officials and hopes that the drilling of the bore wells can be performed as scheduled, but this will proceed only after the necessary approval is received from the authorities concerned.

Dr. Singh and his group have almost completed a manuscript on geogenic arsenic and fluoride based on their pilot study data. The draft is being circulated among the co-authors for final approval before being submitted to a journal. In addition, the team presented some of their findings at a UNICEF conference in India on January 16, 2017. The PI plans to visit Utah in February 2017 for a drilling program that is funded by another sources but is highly relevant to his PEER project. This drilling program had been scheduled for December 2016 but had to be postponed due to equipment difficulties. If his schedule allows, Dr. Singh may also visit Washington, DC to make a presentation on his project at USAID.

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