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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.
Final Summary of Project Activities

This PEER award was announced in July 2013, and approvals were immediately sought and received from the Department of Health, Government of Punjab, India, as well as the Institutional Review Board at Columbia University. The project kicked off with a pilot testing campaign July 24-30, 2013, which was joined by U.S. partner Alexander van Geen along with co-PIs Manpreet Singh Bhatti and Umesh Kumar Garg and students from TERI University and associated local universities. In this first pilot survey, the team tested seven villages for several water quality parameters using field test kits suggested by the U.S. partner, and they also collected additional groundwater samples that were sent to Columbia University, Barnard College, and Guru Nanak Dev University (GNDU) for more detailed analysis. Based on the results of the pilot survey, the researchers modified their project work plans to add three transects to the originally planned two, meaning that 200 villages would be tested. They also decided to test the well water for nitrate as well as fluoride and arsenic, as nitrate was found to be a serious contaminant.

Another key decision made during the early phase of the project was to place metal placards on all the wells tested to indicate the type of contamination found in the water and advise users whether or not the water was safe for consumption. Based on the results of the field tests, the metal plates were installed at some 13,000 wells in the 200 villages tested. Interesting geographical variations in contamination emerged when the team analyzed their data. They observed that arsenic is mostly found in the northern part of the study region, with 43 of 73 studied villages in that area found to be contaminated with high concentrations of As (>10 ppb), while the other contaminants (i.e. nitrate and fluoride) were not found above the allowable limits for potable water. Nitrate is mostly found in the transect along the Beas River, with the concentration being >45 ppm, while high concentrations of fluoride (>1.5 ppm) and high electrical conductivity are found in the southern part of the study area. The results from the field study suggest that for the 13,000 tested wells, mitigation measures could be directed and tailored specifically by region. Another positive outcome of the project was that during the testing of bore wells over the course of the project, the PI Dr. Singh and his team trained 20 people (mostly local villagers) to test groundwater samples using field test kits. These people can test water samples on their own if provided with the test kits.

In addition to supporting field work and sample and data analysis in India, the PEER project provided support for productive exchange visits among the key participants. The PI Dr. Chander Kumar Singh and doctoral scholar Mr. Anand Kumar visited Columbia University October 14-31, 2014, to analyze water samples collected during the field work and organize their results in a GIS database to map the spatial distribution of the contaminants being studied. They also had the chance to present their findings both at Columbia and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During the stay, they discussed future work plans with their U.S. partner and identified new areas for sampling, including more intense field work along the Ravi River, where high levels of arsenic had been found. Dr. van Geen agreed to serve as co-supervisor for Mr. Kumar in his doctoral studies. Mr. Kumar made a return visit to Columbia September 1 through December 14, 2015, to do additional work in the labs and attend two courses (i.e, Quantitative Methods for Data Analysis and the Carbon Cycle). As a result of further discussions with Dr. van Geen during the visit, the team planned some additional field work to try to answer some questions raised by their initial results: Why there is no As in the Beas River floodplain while As is high in the Ravi floodplain? Does elevated nitrate concentration play any role in preventing As release in the Beas floodplain? Does the sediment chemistry in the two floodplains vary? To answer these questions, team members planned to drill boreholes in selected transects in late 2016. This project was notable for the fact that it included a Pakistani researcher, Dr. Abida Farooqi, who was supported by another USAID-funded program, the Pakistan-U.S. Science and Technology Cooperation Program. Plans called for her and members of her team at Quaid-i-Azam University to participate in the bore well drilling campaign. However, plans for drilling on the Pakistani side during this field campaign had to be postponed, as the proposed sites were very close to the border and deemed to present a security risk. Blanket testing of the bore wells was suggested by the U.S. partner to get a clearer picture of the hydrogeochemistry of the study region. All the selected villages were retested with field kits for nitrate, arsenic, sulfate, and iron, and altogether 1,000 wells were tested in December 2016. In March 2017, the team drilled 14 bore wells in 11 villages, and they subsequently analyzed the sediments at five-foot intervals. Sediment samples were also collected for arsenic species analysis, and clay samples were taken for radiocarbon dating.

Outreach was also an important component of this project. On April 22, 2016, Dr. Singh and his group organized a one-day National Symposium entitled “Geogenic Contamination of Groundwater: Its Impacts and Mitigation Measures,” which attracted 250 participants. In separate meetings, the researchers also briefed the Department of Water Supply and Sanitation, Government of Punjab, and other relevant officials from the Indian Government and the World Bank. Although the project ended as of July 31, 2017, the PI and his team have continued analyzing their data and writing manuscripts for publication (see links below). Already by the time they submitted their final report on the project in September 2017, they had received two additional local (Indian) grants and two international grants totaling $120,000 to help support their ongoing efforts. The project was also honored by being named one of India’s top scientific achievements for 2018, and it has attracted wide media interest. Links to a few representative newspaper articles on the project are included below.


Junaid Ali Khattak, Abida Farooqi, Ishtiaque Hussain, Anand Kumar, Chander Kumar Singh, Brian J. Mailloux, Benjamin Bostick, Tyler Ellis, Alexander van Geen. 2022. Groundwater fluoride across the Punjab plains of Pakistan and India: Distribution and underlying mechanisms, Science of The Total Environment, Volume 806, Part 3, 2022, 151353, ISSN 0048-9697, (

Anand Kumar, Chander Kumar Singh, Benjamin Bostick, Athena Nghiem, Brian Mailloux, Alexander van Geen. 2020. Regulation of groundwater arsenic concentrations in the Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej floodplains of Punjab, India, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, Volume 276, 2020, Pages 384-403, ISSN 0016-7037,

Alexander van Geen, Abida Farooqi, Anand Kumar, Junaid Ali Khattak, Nisbah Mushtaq, Ishtiaque Hussain, Tyler Ellis, Chander Kumar Singh. 2018. Field testing of over 30,000 wells for arsenic across 400 villages of the Punjab plains of Pakistan and India: Implications for prioritizing mitigation, Science of The Total Environment, Volume 654, 2019, Pages 1358-1363, ISSN 0048-9697, (

News Articles about Project‐news/high‐arsenic‐levels‐in‐punjab‐wells‐raising‐major‐public‐healthconcern‐study‐1961180‐pak‐study‐reveals‐extensive‐arsenic‐problemin‐punjab‐groundwater/article25772782.ece‐pak‐study‐reveals‐extensive‐arsenic‐problem‐inpunjab‐groundwater‐62534‐in‐review‐indias‐biggest‐achievements‐in‐the‐fields‐ofscience‐and‐medicine‐5784081.html

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