ISLAMABAD While some parts of country are facing threats due to high-level arsenic contamination in the drinking water that is causing cancer, stillbirths, and post-neonatal mortality etc, the rivers flowing from Himalayas carry sediments in the form of minerals, which is considered to be one major sources of the arsenic.
In Pakistan, the issue of arsenic is more complex as there are number of reasons behind the groundwater contamination that include agricultural activities, industrial effluent and existence of arsenic bedrocks, this was revealed by Dr Attiqur Rehman, postdoctoral research fellow at the AIST and Executive Director, Urban Development and Environmental Research Centre (UDERC), Japan, during in an exclusive interview with TheNation.
In Asian region, arsenic contamination got attention of the international community of researchers in 1990, when severe cases of arsenic related diseases were reported in Bangladesh, India, and Taiwan, Dr Atiq said while responding to a question about the presence of arsenic in the region.
He said that it is also considered that the main source of arsenic in the drinking water was arsenic-rich rocks, through which the water is filtered, as they could also exist because of the mining or industrial activity in some areas.
To a question that when the issue was taken for the first time in the country, he said that the issue of presence of the arsenic in Pakistan was mainly highlighted, when a group of Japanese researchers and scientists had visited the country on the invitation of former caretaker prime minister of Pakistan (late) Malik Meraj Khalid in January 1997.
The purpose was to explore possible causes of the water contamination in Punjab with Kasur as focus city so that people of Pakistan could get access to clean drinking water.
The researchers and scientists include Dr Hideharu Morishita (Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand), Dr Tatsuro Sakano (Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan), Dr Takeshi Komai (National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, AIST, Japan) established the 'Arsenic Research Group.
Quoting one of the members of the Arsenic Research Group, Dr Takeshi Komai, a geoscientist from the AIST, Japan had visited Pakistan several times with his research team of geologists from Japan, Dr Atiq said taht Takeshi found a close link of geological reasons behind the presence of arsenic in the different countries including Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Dr Atiq further said that the declining level of the groundwater due to over extraction of the water for agriculture and municipal use.
He further added that the underground water movement made groundwater more contaminated due to occurrence of the natural arsenic bedrocks.
According to one opinion, he said rivers flows from Himalayas carry sediments in the form of minerals, which are major source of the arsenic.
In general, the arsenic level is higher at upper layer of the groundwater, it reduces as we go deep, he said adding that but this assumption is not necessarily true as in some cases, if the arsenic rocks are rather at deeper place, there is high probability of presence of the high level of arsenic.
Talking about arsenic level in the different part of the country, he said that in Southern Punjab, the arsenic contamination is increasing when moving towards waterbeds of rivers.
He further said that the arsenic level increases naturally as we travel towards Sind River.
When arsenic contaminated water is used for agriculture, especially for rice farming, the arsenic contaminated soil becomes a risk to peasants and farmers working in the agriculture fields, he added.
He further alarmed that dry dust particles containing arsenic could badly affect skin, eyes and lungs of a person, who is directly exposed to this pollution source.
Arsenic contaminated water, when used for growing vegetables, rice and fodder, can cause serious damage to the consumers both human and animals, he informed.
Arsenic in drinking water is an increasingly serious threat to human health, he said adding that the maximum daily intake level set by the World Health Organization (WHO), which is 10 Part Per Billion (PPB).
While the water samples in the Southern Punjab are having arsenic level above 10 PPB of the WHO standards as major cities including Multan (10-100 PPB), Bhawalpur (10-70 PPB), Ahmad Pur East (10-70 PPB), Yazman (10-130 PPB), Rahim Yar Khan (10-90 PPB), Liaqat Pur, RYK (10-90 PPB) and Muzaffargarh (10-150 PPB).
TheNation has learnt this through the results of a field verification research jointly conducted by the team of Japanese researchers from Tokyo Institute of Technology and National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST).
These results also confirmed the state of drinking water in these areas as declared by the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR).
He said that there was dire need to conduct baseline research studies to understand the relationship of arsenic in groundwater with geology, geomorphology and geo hydrological conditions of high-risk areas of Punjab.
Not only natural, he said, but human activities also contribute significantly in complicating the groundwater situation.
Extensive use of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides in districts like Rahim Yar Khan, Muzzafargarh, Multan etc.
are adding to groundwater contamination.
It is relevant to note here that the arsenic is difficult to detect while ingesting, as it is tasteless, odourless and colourless and its effects are not immediately visible.
Moreover, the people can absorb significant quantity of arsenic without any immediate health complications.

This news was published in The Nation newspaper. Read complete newspaper of 07-Mar-2010 here.