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
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
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.