Geopolitics

In Pakistan, Arsenic-Laced Water Puts Millions At Risk

A boy filling water jugs on the outskirts of the capital of Pakistan
A boy filling water jugs on the outskirts of the capital of Pakistan
Lakshmi Supriya

BENGALURU — In vintage crime novels, there is often someone murdered by slow poisoning, and arsenic has been a common weapon of choice. It works the same way in your body — slowly killing you — if it is present in the water you drink beyond a certain threshold. This is why it's disturbing that, according to a new study, the groundwater along the densely populated Indus river basin in Pakistan is severely contaminated with arsenic, putting the health of over 50 million people at risk.

Arsenic occurs naturally in Earth's crust. It is used by humans in some alloys in car batteries and semiconductors, as well as to make some pesticides and herbicides. Certain inorganic compounds that contain arsenic are highly toxic. Exposure in small doses causes headaches, dizziness, diarrhea and changes in skin coloration. When the poisoning becomes acute, convulsions, vomiting and muscle cramps can be caused. Prolonged exposure to arsenic affects various organs — including the lungs, skin and the kidneys — leading to various types of cancers and ultimately death. Arsenic in the soil accumulates in plants, especially in leafy vegetables and apples, and may inhibit plant growth. However, it is at its deadliest to humans when it pollutes groundwater used for drinking or irrigation. It has been estimated that about 200 million people worldwide use such arsenic-contaminated water.

Investigations into the quality of groundwater from the previous decade have revealed that the large river basins in South Asia contain harmful levels of arsenic. The Ganga-Brahmaputra delta in India and Bangladesh and the Red River basin in Vietnam are greatly affected.

The effects of drinking arsenic-contaminated water in India emerged most prominently in the early 1980s in West Bengal and, over time, in other states in the Gangetic plains, such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and in the Brahmaputra basin, including in Assam and Manipur.

The areas usually affected are low-lying, where the movement of water is slow and its flow carries a large amount of sediments. This reduces the amount of oxygen available in the water, which forms the stable and more water-soluble compound arsenite. Once the oxygen levels begin to drop, arsenic is released from the sediments and into the water, and increasing its concentration in groundwater. "It may be the size of the Asian rivers, large because they drain the Himalayas, that makes the pollution so prominent," John McArthur, a geochemist at University College London who has been studying arsenic contamination around the world, told The Wire.

About 200 million people worldwide use such arsenic-contaminated water.

While several small-scale studies have found that the groundwater in several areas in Pakistan is loaded with arsenic, the full extent of the problem has remained out of focus. "The original motivation for the country-wide sampling campaign came about from wanting to identify the full scope of the arsenic contamination problem in the country, which is what our study has accomplished," Joel Podgorski, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, Switzerland, and the lead author of the new study, told The Wire.

Between 2013 and 2015, the researchers collected more than 1,100 water samples throughout the country from both household pumps and municipal and agricultural tube wells, and analyzed these samples for arsenic and other elements. Using this and previously published data, along with hydrological and topographical data for the country, they were able to visualize the full extent of the problem.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 10 micrograms of arsenic per liter of water is hazardous to health. Pakistan's official guidelines recommend an upper limit of 50 micrograms per liter of drinking water.

Podgorski and colleagues found that the water was heavily contaminated along multiple points of the Indus. As it made its way across the length of Punjab (especially along the banks of the tributaries Ravi and Sutlej), entered northern Sindh and emptied into the Arabian Sea south of Karachi, arsenic levels frequently crossed the 50 micrograms mark. In northern Sindh, a cluster of samples showed more than 200 micrograms of the metal per liter of water. Beyond the plains watered by the river and its tributaries, the arsenic levels were within safe limits.

According to Podgorski, there are several reasons the Indus basin is so plagued by arsenic — apart from the river's sluggish flow in the plains, which causes arsenic to accumulate in aquifers. The sediments being washed out from the Himalayas are still relatively young, less than 10,000 years old. Compared to older sediments that would have already leached out their arsenic from the sediments, these have been exposed to the environment only recently, and are still in the process of releasing their arsenic into the water.

Specifically, they found a strong correlation between high arsenic concentrations and the pH of the soil. A higher pH causes arsenic to be released easily from the sediments and into the water. It may be possible that in the arid central plains of Pakistan, the highly alkaline soil (corresponding to higher pH) enhances the release of arsenic from the sediments, especially to water near the surface, which could then migrate to deeper sources.

"The fact that irrigation correlates highly with arsenic contamination in the Indus valley leads us to speculate that it may be contributing to — but not exclusively causing — the problem by raising the pH of the soil through evaporation and transporting the released arsenic to the aquifer depth," Podgorski explained.

The study estimates that the high level of contamination puts about 50 to 60 million people living along the Indus basin in the Sindh and Punjab provinces, including the densely populated cities of Lahore and Hyderabad, at risk of drinking toxic water.

"For those living within the Indus Plain, their water supply should be tested for arsenic, since not all wells in this area are contaminated," Podgorski said. "In fact, contamination can be so heterogeneous that wells within the same village can have both safe and unsafe concentrations of arsenic. Only once all of the wells have been tested is it possible to know from which wells it is safe to take drinking water." Once toxic wells have been identified, either that well should be closed or arsenic filters should be installed.

But despite the scale of the problem, both Podgorski and McArthur agree that the contamination will not spread to any new areas, as rivers only flow downhill. However, McArthur said that arsenic-rich water can spread to more areas within the same basin at a rate of a few sq. meters per year in the big delta and alluvial plains.

The extent of the problem today is significant and affects a large number of people, and McArthur says that the first step in helping the affected people is for the government to recognize that there is a problem. Once it does, then it could help ensure that people get piped water from local arsenic-free wells or from contaminated sources that have been treated.

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Spencer Tunick Nude Installation in Israel

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Salam!*

Welcome to Monday, where the UK pays homage to slain MP David Amess, Myanmar frees thousands of prisoners, and Facebook gets ready to build its "metaverse." Please fasten your seatbelts: Worldcrunch also takes stock of the long-lasting effects — good and bad — the pandemic has had on the air travel industry.

[*Azeri - Azerbaijan]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

Myanmar to free political prisoners: Myanmar's junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has announced the release of 5,636 prisoners who had been jailed for protesting the coup that ousted the civilian government in February 2021.

• Powerful Haiti gang behind the kidnapping of U.S. missionaries: The notorious 400 Mawozo gang is believed to be behind the kidnapping in Haiti of a group of Christian missionaries, including 16 U.S. citizens and one Canadian. The brazen kidnapping on Saturday comes as crime is spiking since the killing of President Jovenel Moise in July.

• UK to pay tribute to David Amess: British lawmakers will pay homage in parliament to colleague David Amess, who was stabbed to death Friday in what was described by the police as a "terrorist incident." Officers arrested a 25-year-old suspect whose father, Harbi Ali Kullane, worked as a media adviser to a former prime minister of Somalia.

• COVID update: Russia has registered more than 34,000 cases of new infections in the past 24 hours, a new record since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, police in the northeast Italian city of Trieste used water cannons to clear striking dockworkers protesting Italy's new requirements that all employees be vaccinated.

• At least 26 killed in floods in India: Torrential rain has triggered floods and landslides in India's southern coastal state of Kerala, killing at least 26 people.

• Facebook to hire 10,000 in EU to develop "metaverse": The U.S. social media giant plans to hire 10,000 workers in the European Union over the next five years to build a "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet that the company touts as the future.

Punishing parents for children's bad behavior: After limiting gaming hours for minors, China is now considering legislation to reprimand parents if their children exhibit "very bad behavior" or commit crimes.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Colombian daily El Espectador dedicates its front page to Alex Saab, "owner of the secrets" of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The Colombian businessman, wanted by U.S. authorities for allegedly laundering money on behalf of Venezuela's government, has been extradited from Cape Verde to the U.S. where he is scheduled to appear in court today.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

4.9%

China's economy registered its slowest pace in a year as the country faces a looming energy crisis with power shortages and increasing pressure on its property sector. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the period between July-September rose 4.9%, the weakest numbers since the third quarter of 2020 and significantly lower than forecasts. The world's second-largest economy faces a debt crisis linked to the China Evergrande Group debt crisis, while energy shortfalls have dropped factory output to its weakest since early 2020, when heavy COVID-19 curbs were in place.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

7 ways the pandemic may change the airline industry for good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

⛽ Cleaner aviation fuel: With air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel. In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials

.🛃 Smoother check-in: The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

✈️ The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less? At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel, in particular, is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"The crimes committed that night are unforgivable for the Republic."

— Emmanuel Macron became the first French president to commemorate the killing of as many as 200 Algerian independence protesters by Parisian police in 1961. For 40 years, French officials ignored the massacre, which took place a year before Algeria gained its independence from France after an eight-year war. In 2012, French President François Hollande acknowledged the killings for the first time on a visit to Algeria, and Macron took it further by attending Sunday's commemoration at the site where the events happened in the French capital. Still, many had hoped the French President would go further and take responsibility for a "state massacre," for a crime many historians consider the most violent repression of a peaceful demonstration in post-War Europe.

📈💥  IN OTHER NEWS

​Low trust, high risk: The global rise of violence targeting politicians

The deadly stabbing of British Parliament Member David Amess confirms an ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad. In The Conversation, James Weinberg — the study's author and a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield — writes:

⏪ The assassination of Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on Friday, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councilor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

☝️ Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

🇬🇧🇳🇿🇿🇦 Not only are these experiences of abuse or threats of physical violence felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK — they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile, from New Zealand to South Africa.


Read the full piece from The Conversation, now on Worldcrunch.com

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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