Arsenic Contamination of Groundwater in Nepal: Good Public Health Intention Gone Bad
What Remains to be Done?
Studies have revealed the gravity of arsenic contamination of groundwater in Terai region of Nepal. About 20,000 shallow wells equipped with hand pumps have been tested to date, out of a total of 200,000.37 Testing of all wells across the Terai Region is needed to systematically identify the magnitude of the problem. It has been found that geological source for the Bengal and Indus Basins as for Terai region of Nepal, primarily originated in the Himalayas. Therefore, more comprehensive hydro-geological investigation needs to be conducted to identify arsenic spatial distribution pattern throughout the country and pattern of arsenic mobilization in groundwater in Terai. It will help to identify risk area and at the same time will help to prepare guideline for future tube well installation, and preventive/mitigation strategy.37 The tube wells and other water sources, soil and sediments, various food items needs to be monitor regularly. There is an urgent need to develop an effective national strategy for modernizing the irrigation system and improving management and performance of the surface irrigation systems in Nepal, with regard to the vulnerability of the areas with respect to arsenic contamination.
Training program for health personnel from Terai district should be launched so that they will be able to deal with the arsenicosis patient. A special course on arsenic should be designed in medical, public health, engineering, and other relevant academic institutions. More operational research is needed to recommend appropriate arsenic removal technique at small communities and household level. Government needs to work on to standardize and strengthen groundwater quality sampling and analytical procedures (with emphasis on arsenic), and to consolidate the existing groundwater agencies under a national regulatory body, to draft legal provisions on groundwater, and to incorporate them into the Water Resources Act.38 The collaboration among various stakeholders working in arsenic related project must be established for uniform dissemination of information and advocacy.
Discussion and Conclusions
Lately, issue of arsenic contamination of ground drinking water has been a predominant phenomenon in Terai region of Nepal. Mitigation procedures must be employed as soon as arsenic has been identified. While the success of implementation depends mainly on socioeconomic factors as well as people's acceptance of an option and its capital cost, scientific understanding of arsenic has enhanced value on the quantification of impacts, but not on the implementation of mitigation measures. Therefore, instead of delaying implementation until arsenic contamination is fully understood, both implementation and scientific investigation should be conducted in parallel.
At the policy level, when arsenic contamination is identified in groundwater there is a need to assess the scale of contamination and the emergency level based on the population at risk, the time of exposure, and the concentration of arsenic in water. Based on the contamination scale and the emergency level, government should implement a regional emergency plan of action with short-term and long-term components to mitigate arsenic contamination. Potential emergency and short-term responses include dug wells, pond sand filters, rainwater harvesting, arsenic removal filters at the household level, and use of a safe aquifer. Potential long-term operational responses are arsenic removal plants at the community level, piped water supply, and use of a safe aquifer.
At the implementation level, when arsenic is identified, there is a need to ensure the appropriate government institution about the contamination, ensure that the data are available to public and all stakeholders and properly stored for further scientific research and ensure that the government requires the private operator to check arsenic on a regular basis and makes the results available to stakeholder.
Health and socio-economic problems associated with it appear to be in an acute and unmanageable state in the southwestern part of Nepal. Ignorance, illiteracy as well as lack of access to basic infrastructure have added further complication to the problem. With a growing population, increasing industrialization, and higher demands for good quality water, these problems will get worse in the decades to come if no mitigation steps are taken right now. Identification of arsenic-affected areas and provision of safe, alternative water supply options in the affected regions are needed to combat the arsenic problem. There is an urgent need for mass international involvement and participation of the private, government, and industrial sectors in addressing the problems is urgently needed to take united, immediate and effective steps to save millions of people in Nepal.
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