Hellish Water

By: David Bradley

The water from Hell poisoning West Bengal

In 1962, when the first deep tube-well was sunk in the district of Nadia, West Bengal, the people cried `Away, away, the water from Hell is coming out!'. But as more tube-wells sprang up, the dusty villages throughout the region began to rely on them as their sole source of water during the long, hot days of the dry season. However, a team of environmental scientists from Jadavpur University, Calcutta, headed by Dipankar Chakraborti has unearthed an insidious, subterranean threat that is turning the dream of constant fresh water into a nightmare.

 Since 1988, after sporadic cases of arsenic poisoning were reported, Chakraborti and his team have travelled from village to village in West Bengal analysing the drinking water from thousands of tube-wells. What they have found in the drinking water strikes fear into the hearts of the villagers. Chakraborti's team have discovered arsenic - the deadly mineral element of murder and medicine - in quantities some twenty to thirty times higher than is regarded as `safe' by the World Health Organisation in the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people living in villages along the river Ganga. According to Chakraborti `Those affected by the arsenic were easily recognisable', he says, `they have inflamed eyes, skin lesions, gangrene and skin growths'; the tell-tale signs of arsenic poisoning. `The victims are often ostracised from social life because of their symptoms many villagers seeing the effects as the wrath of God', he adds.

During their studies, thirteen members of the group have so far carried out door to door surveys in 321 villages and found that almost 800 000 people are drinking arsenic contaminated water, they encountered over 175 000 victims with obvious visible symptoms, most of which indicate the late stages of arsenic poisoning. Many others had internal damage, such as enlargement of the liver, which is not immediately apparent without medical examination. If their findings are extrapolated to the whole region, more than 30 million people could slowly be dying from a natural disaster they cannot even see. Not one of the villages studied by the team was entirely free from contamination.

Arsenic, in the form of insoluble salts, occurs naturally in the bedrock that underlies much of West Bengal's 88000 square kilometres. Under normal conditions the ground water stays relatively free of arsenic in a soluble form. According to Chakraborti, however, ground water is the main source of water and the ever-increasing demands of farming, water for dairy animals and domestic use, has somehow affected the geology of the area allowing arsenic to dissolve out of the bedrock and leach into the ground water - perhaps as normally wet rock dries and oxidises. `Millions of cubic metres are drawn for irrigation each year in this area and agriculture relies on this source totally except during the three months of the rainy season', he says.

Arsenic, like lead and other heavy metals stays in the body for months because there is no mechanism for the body to eliminate it quickly, although it is very slowly removed in hair, nails and skin. A small, regular intake gradually builds up in the body until it reaches poisonous levels. Arsenic attacks all living tissue, many victims suffer early damage to blood vessels, which reduces the flow of blood to and from their organs and so speeds up the damage to other tissues - death is almost inevitable. Chakraborti adds that slow arsenic poisoning, is made even more tragic by the fact that its effects are accelerated by undernourishment.

The researchers believe the tube-wells, which are usually less than 450 feet deep are unsafe because they draw water from the most contaminated layers of rock. They have found that one such well in Malda district spews out 153 kilograms of arsenic each year. The team recommend boring to at least 500 feet and that careful, regular monitoring of water from these wells should be carried out.

Until recently, the poisoning was largely ignored by the authorities but as the extent of this natural disaster has gradually surfaced and seems to be increasing some money is being provided for these deeper tube-wells. This is only a stop gap measure, however, as the needs of the growing 30 million population in this region of West Bengal an eighth the size of the UK, are rising all the time. Over the course of their studies the team found that tube-wells free from arsenic one year were almost certainly be contaminated by the next. They have seen at least a twenty percent increase in incidence of arsenic poisoning each year since they began, they believe the likelihood of 500 feet tube-wells staying free of arsenic for long is not high.

The long-term solution would be to curb the over-use of underground water but what do the people do for water then? According to Chakraborti West Bengal has huge tracts of wetland that are neglected as a water source and that average rainfall is the highest in India (80 inches each year) but this is not conserved. `Well-planned wetland management is essential - now!' he says. `We need to know what alternative sources of water we can exploit and for that we need scientific and economic input from the rest of the world, he adds.

The problem may not be limited to West Bengal but surrounding areas too. According to Chakraborti, `We have some evidence that certain areas in neighbouring Bangladesh are likewise affected although they are unaware of the problem.' Other regions with similar underground geology and a reliance on tube-wells may also suffer the effects of the water from hell.
This is a version of an article I wrote for The Guardian in 1995, considering it's now more than ten years since the issue was first brought to the attention of the UK public, very little progress has been made.