The perils of groundwater contamination were again in the spotlight recently when media reports about drinking water causing cancer surfaced from five villages in an industrial belt on the outskirts of the Indian capital New Delhi.
As medical experts and the health department scrambled to investigate further, villagers in the Chhapraula Industrial Area in the Greater Noida region of north India’s Uttar Pradesh state said deadly diseases — including cancer of the gut, eczemas, hepatitis and liver disorders – were being triggered by the sullied groundwater. Scores of people had died over the past five years, it was alleged.
Following the reports, top oncologists from the country’s premier medical All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi have asked the Indian Council of Medical Research to set up a cancer registry in the affected villages to monitor the situation. The Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board has also asked the Central Pollution Control Board and the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research to determine contamination of groundwater in the villages – with various illegal industries dumping untreated waste.
While the jury is still out on whether or not groundwater is responsible for cancer deaths in Greater Noida, the region isn’t the only one where groundwater is creating health hazards for the local populace.
Nearly 80% of India’s rural drinking water comes from underground sources with contamination plaguing towns like Gorakhpur, also in Uttar Pradesh. Here, fluoride, arsenic and iron are known to have triggered encephalitis, jaundice and typhoid, mostly among the poor who live in dismal sanitation conditions.
According to a 2012 study, Finger Print of Arsenic Contaminated Water in India-A Review, arsenic contamination has been reported widely across northern Indian states like Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Groundwater arsenic contamination has also been identified in the lower Ganga plain of West Bengal, Bangladesh and the Terai region of Nepal.
Investigations by Central Ground Water Board reveal that arsenic contamination is affecting the states of Bihar, Assam and Chhattisgarh. The Bengal delta plain covering swathes of Bangladesh and West Bengal in India is most severely hit by groundwater arsenic contamination.
According to Dr Shashank Shekhar, professor, Department of Geology at Delhi University, arsenic and fluoride are commonly found in groundwater where chemicals have leeched from the bedrock due to overexploitation of the source. Heavy metals are likely to rush in from industrial waste dumped untreated into water-systems while nitrates may surface due to excessive and prolonged use of fertilisers.
“Most of the water contamination is triggered by anthropogenic factors like industrial effluents leeching into the ground. Unlike rivers, groundwater is tough to pollute but once polluted, it can be extremely difficult to get rid of. In urban areas like Greater Noida, heavy metals like lead and chromium also permeate into groundwater sources,” Shekhar said.
In rural areas, added the geologist, the excessive use of pesticides/insecticides by farmers contaminates the local water supply. A study by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in 2004 found high levels of pesticides in the blood of certain farmers from Bathinda and Ropar districts in the northern state of Punjab.
“Punjab practices intensive agriculture that needs liberal use of pesticides,” explained Shekhar. “The state’s use of chemicals is one of the highest in the country and residues have been found in the food as well.”
The general view among farmers, he said, is that the higher the pesticide use, the greater the yield. “As fertilisers are heavily subsidised, this results in their excessive rather than optimal use. Unless this flawed thinking is corrected, both the grains and water of the region will continue to be contaminated.”
Overexploitation of groundwater resources due to population explosion is also aggravating the problem in the capital city of Delhi. The National Capital Region Planning Board estimates that seven of nine districts in Delhi are categorised as overexploited with respect to dynamic groundwater resources.
According to data from the water resources ministry, groundwater in pockets of 158 of the 639 districts in India has gone saline and contamination levels have breached government standards of safety.
In Delhi, aquifers in north, west and southwest districts along the Najafgarh drain contain lead. The southwest district has cadmium and northwest, south and east Delhi have chromium, making the water toxic for human health.
“Contaminated water is the primary source of infection in India causing typhoid, cholera, jaundice, acute gastroenteritis and in extreme cases, cancers. I’ve worked in the US, UK and Europe but nowhere is the level of contamination as high as in India,” said Dr. Atul Gogia, consultant physician, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi.
Excessive fluoride-laden water, he added, can cause fluorosis which can lead to irreversible damage to teeth and bones. “Arsenic impacts the nervous system, can cause brain disorders in children and can also be carcinogenic. Chromium too, can cause cancer while nitrates in drinking water can lead to respiratory and digestive disorders especially among infants.”
According to renowned water expert Dr Vikram Soni, professor of theoretical physics at Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi, prolonged and unchecked industrialisation has polluted the two major water bodies – the Hindon and Yamuna rivers that flow through the crowded floodplains in Uttar Pradesh.
Soni, who has worked on the `Yamuna Floodplain Project‘ to study the impact of pollution in and around Uttar Pradesh, said: “This is the most polluted stretch of the region with tonnes of sewage from Delhi and Ghaziabad causing contamination in the two primary water bodies.
“The indiscriminate exploitation of floodplain water combined with relentless building activity and sand mining have allowed the ingress of polluted water from the Yamuna and Hindon to enter the floodplain aquifer. It cannot be rescued so the solution is to stop the construction activity and source the water from the away floodplain.”
The best way to receive continuous clean water supply, he added, is to not exploit the underground reserves. “The moment this rule is flouted, the aquifer can’t be set right and a chain of undesirable events is set in motion.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently launched the high-profile Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, a drive to clean India, with much fanfare. But the mission will be incomplete till supplying clean drinking water to all Indian citizens is prioritised by the new