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Opinion

September 5, 2017

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A for arsenic

If I go back a few decades, when I was a school-going boy, I can remember drinking water from the tap without any fear of it being contaminated. Were those just carefree days or was tap water actually safe?

We cannot even say for certain if our policymakers ever thought about providing us safe drinking water. What we can say with certainty is that there has been no sincere effort or a policy in place to check the levels of arsenic in groundwater or in the food that we eat. The proof is the recent eye-opening report on arsenic in our groundwater, affecting millions of Pakistanis.

Unfortunately, there is nothing new about this report. If I correctly remember, it was in 2004 when I had to go to district Kasur from Lahore to report on the levels of arsenic found in the drinking water there. At the time, it was seen as something of an isolated incident, affecting only a limited number of people in a particular area.

Thirteen years down the road, the problem seems to have acquired gigantic proportions, affecting far more people than it was impacting in 2004 – more than 50 million. Or maybe, our ability to measure the problem back then was limited. One thing is clear: dangerous levels of arsenic have been present in our drinking water since God knows when. The question is: what have we done about it? And is it just water that is poisonous? What about the vegetables, rice, and fish, etc, that we consume every day?

Fifty million people is not a small number. “This is an alarmingly high number, which demonstrates the urgent need to test all drinking water wells in the Indus Plain,” says lead author of the report, Joel Podgorski, a geophysicist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. For our better understanding, the authors of the study (carried out by The Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology) have developed a map which highlights areas of likely contamination based on water quality data from about 1,200 groundwater pumps tested from 2013 to 2015.

The point is: if we were aware of the growing environmental pollution why did we still not do anything to stop the health hazard from spreading? Our aversion to focus on something serious but less sensational cannot be more starkly at display than in this case. That we have arsenic in the water is not a revelation. What we must ask ourselves is: what is stopping us from doing something about it?

For the beginner, arsenic – a metal-like substance – is produced by industries that make or use arsenic. Improper disposal of this waste, which is common in industrial cities like Karachi, Lahore, Kasur, and Faisalabad, can contaminate groundwater. And it is not just water; arsenic in groundwater can also enter the body through food cooked in that water.

Since arsenic has no smell or taste, one cannot tell if it is in drinking water. The only way to find out if the water has high levels of arsenic is to have it tested. How many of us have ever taken the trouble of getting the water we consume tested? Perhaps creating awareness can make a difference. The consumption of arsenic can cause thickening and discoloration of the skin, which may lead to skin cancer. It can also lead to digestive problems, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea.

Living in denial, despite the damage that we continue to do to ourselves, remains our chronic illness. A few experts in Pakistan have reportedly said that this recent document on the water contamination in Pakistan seems to be a “gross overestimation” of what the situation actually is. Even if the experts have raised the right objection, it does not take away anything from the fact that our policymakers, environmental experts and scientists have to address the issue on a priority basis – which they have not till now.

One way of doing it is by making a comprehensive policy on the issue of water contamination and then implementing it with full devotion. If such a document already exists, it should be dusted off and followed by practical steps to contain the level of arsenic in groundwater. The industrial sector should also show some responsibility in this regard. If this report does not shake our authorities from their deep slumber, what will?

The writer is assistant editor at The News on Sunday.

The writer is a staff member

Email: [email protected]

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