Lack of access to clean drinking water in Sindh has forced people to consume groundwater that has unsafe concentrations of arsenic and fluoride in many areas of the province. The situation started to come to surface when sick individuals required blood transfusions, and their household members were tested to check if they were fit to donate. However, after lab work, most of the blood donors were turned away by the hospitals due to disease laden blood.
Ghulam Akbar, a small-scale landlord in Hatri Union Council, Hyderabad district, said, “It seems blood of our youth has become contaminated.
Whenever we take our young and healthy sons and nephews to donate blood for our loved ones admitted in hospitals, laboratories almost always reject their blood, citing it unfit, due to carrying infectious diseases.”
Narrating the plight of the majority of the people in his family and around him, he said, “Nobody could have imagined that all of us, residing in villages along the Indus River had been consuming contaminated groundwater for ages.”
The villagers use hand pumps to pull out the underground water for domestic consumption as well as cultivation in some cases. “Our youngsters are infected with multiple diseases because of drinking poisonous water,” he said.
Speaking about how they were able to connect the diseases with groundwater, Akbar said that in the recent past, they witnessed many young deaths and multiple stomach ailments in the young. Lab reports of many young men showed contaminated blood, which pointed to the consumption of poisonous elements.
“When people raised complaints against multiple diseases and reports of deaths at younger age in the area, we collected water samples from hand pumps in different riverine villages for laboratory tests to see the status of the water we use,” Akbar explained.
He said it was shocking to learn that all the samples were tainted by arsenic, and termed dangerous for human health. “Despite knowing this, we do not have any alternative and consume water continuously,” he added.
According to reports, ninety percent people in these areas are facing hepatitis-C, hepatitis-B and other stomach-related ailments. Arsenic ingestion can cause diarrhoea and vomiting, whereas long-term, low-level exposure can trigger gangrene, skin cancer, and pulmonary diseases that can be fatal. Figures have been quoted on the basis of patients or infected individuals in each household. On average, three to four members are suffering from diseases in each household, for which they have to visit hospitals frequently.
South Asia is vulnerable to arsenic poisoning as the sub-continent accounts for half of global groundwater use. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are, respectively, the first, fourth and sixth largest users in the world.
Elaborating the situation, a local activist Abu Bakar said, “It was observed for the first time when someone was admitted to the hospital and doctors suggested arranging blood for the patient on emergency-basis.
We took our young healthy relatives for blood donation, which laboratories rejected instantly on the basis of infection.”
Later, other people from these catchment areas went to the hospitals seemingly infected with common diseases, but after primary tests, doctors diagnosed them with hepatitis-C and hepatitis-B.
Hatri area is known for being rich in rose gardens, mango and jamun orchards, phalsa, banana, and major food and cash crops due to its fertility. But for some years, people have been witnessing change in water taste. Reports of young deaths have also been on the rise. Mostly the causes have been water-borne and other curable diseases.
The area once a thick forest, hub of livestock, contributing forest and dairy products, now has become economically poor after depleting tree cover and increasing soil infertility. River flow has become uncertain because of natural and manmade hurdles at upper riparian and poor governance at grassroots level.
Information was gathered through discussions in villages near the Indus River embankment in Matiari and Hyderabad districts. Elderly people and activists expressed grievances over the status of water quality they were getting from the hand pumps.
Some farmers associated with agriculture have suggested that the surface water flowing through watercourses was safe.
Majeed Mallah, a farmer from Hatri, said, “When we stopped using water from irrigation network of watercourses and channels for domestic consumption, we started facing diseases.”
Mallah is a producer and trader of a variety of flowers, and has a piece of family land near the famous Mayani forest.
“The old practice in our villages was to fetch water from watercourses and thin streams flowing nearby. Our women used to take their clothes to wash at these streams and spent much time there. Till seven-eight years ago, nobody among us cried against any ailment or health issues.”
According to Mallah, surface water consumption was safe. “We are being frightened now. We are being told that the entire source of drinking water is not safe for human consumption,” he lamented.
He alleged it was the bottle manufacturing industry that was misinforming people about surface water consumption. “Sometimes earlier, bottle manufacturing industries disseminated pamphlets with warning calls, saying not to use surface water. They pleaded that surface water was highly arsenic and toxic,” the trader said, alleging that this propaganda forced people to install hand pumps.
Mallah said frightened people stopped sending women and children to fetch water from flowing streams. Women were now even reluctant to go to these streams for washing clothes.
Some people during the discussions pointed out that water below the riverbed was also contaminated. People residing near the river also travel long distance to fetch water daily from outside the riverine area for domestic use.
Altaf Mahesar, heading Basic Development Foundation (BDF), said they collected 6,500 samples of water from riverine villages, situated in four districts of the province, and all tested positive for high concentration of arsenic.
BDF works on promoting indigenous practices in agriculture and helps communities conserve available water sources. Mahesar said when riverine areas do not have safe drinking water, how was it possible to collect potable water from distant areas.
Mahesar too thinks it was better for the people to use surface water instead of the contaminated underground water.
“If surface water is not available nearby, sand-filtration can be an easy local method to avoid contamination, and use water as per need,” he added.
Another solution was installing arsenic removing technology to avoid any problem, which was being applied in different areas. “This low-cost system can be installed in a village or on domestic level to remove arsenic,” he explained.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), arsenic poisoning from drinking contaminated groundwater affects about 140 million people in 50 countries. The WHO states that an estimated 43,000 people die of arsenic poisoning annually.
The most affected countries are Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, though arsenic pollution is also present in China, parts of Europe and the Americas.
A study based on water samples collected from 14 districts of Sindh found 77 percent water was unsafe. The study was produced before the Sindh High Court (SHC) to take up the matter to save human lives. Later, the Supreme Court of Pakistan had constituted a one-member commission to ensure pure water supply for the public residing in rural and urban areas. The water commission started visiting all irrigation canals, water supply schemes, reverse osmosis plants and above all hospitals, which provide water to patients and their attendants there.
The commission witnessed horrible conditions, and noted how people were left at the mercy of carelessness to use contaminated water.
Despite daring actions and warnings by the water commission, the status of water schemes, canals receiving municipal and industrial waste and RO plants remains the same. Poor people are forced to use contaminated water through all available sources.
Elderly people residing near the river Indus catchment area have fond memories about the streams, forests, prosperity and life full of enjoyment with natural resources. But now at this juncture of life, they find themselves vulnerable to diseases especially because of consuming arsenic-tainted water.
The writer is a staff member