Climate change is worsening the decades-long problem of arsenic poisoning in groundwater in Nadia, the West Bengal district with the most victims
Jagadish Das, 52, a smallholder farmer of Mahishdanga village in Nadia district is a regular patient at Kolkata’s School of Tropical Medicine. Doctors there have said the lesions on his hands and throat are effects of excessive arsenic in drinking water. His skin peels and bleeds frequently. (Photo by Dilip Banerjee)
In many parts of eastern India, Bangladesh and southern Pakistan, overuse of groundwater first brought the level of arsenic above the safe limit of 0.05 milligrams per litre of drinking water, as prescribed by the World Health Organisation. Now, as climate change reduces the rate at which rainwater seeps underground, the arsenic concentration is getting worse. When the problem was first diagnosed in 1983, 22 affected villages were identified in West Bengal. Now the number has gone up to 3,417 villages.
Specialised filters have been developed. But on the ground there is hardly any filter in working condition. One of the worst affected areas is Nadia district in West Bengal. Here is a look at how its residents suffer. See: Indian scientists develop low cost arsenic water filter.
All images by Dilip Banerjee
In Maheshchandrapur village of Nadia district, Anjali Biswas has been walking the 100 metres to this tube well twice a day every day for 10 years. It gives shade, water and a place to meet neighbours. But when she got there on the morning of May 27, she found a large red cross on the tube well. The state government’s health department had checked the water, found the arsenic concentration above the safety limit, and had made this mark to warn residents not to draw water here. But without walking much farther, Biswas has no option. She knows about the effect of arsenic in drinking water — stomach diseases, skin diseases, fever, reduced immunity and even cancer. Still, she continues to fill water from the tube well, as she wonders what she should do.
Sunil Bagh works at the cooperative bank in Ghetugachi village of Nadia district. The 52-year-old shows a skin lesion. Doctors have told him it is a result of arsenic poisoning and may turn cancerous. “I have lost eight relatives to arsenic poisoning,” Bagh says. “My father, my uncles, aunts… The doctors say my lungs are already affected. They are recommending surgery.” At Bagh’s office, colleagues can quickly list around 40 relatives, friends and acquaintances who have died due to arsenic poisoning in the last ten years or so.
As a doctor practising in Nadia, Debdas Chatterjee has been treating victims of arsenic poisoning for the last two decades. Skin lesions, reproductive problems, respiratory problems, cancer — he has seen all the effects.
The problems caused by arsenic contamination in drinking water are not only medical, but socio-economic as well. Kinubala Bagh (left) lost her husband to arsenic poisoning in 1994. Since then, she has had no means to support herself, and has been living with her son and grandchildren (on the right).
Gobindo Sarkar of Mandalhat village in Nadia district has been fighting the arsenic menace since the 1980s. He was one of the pioneers who set up the Arsenic Protirodh Committee (Combat Arsenic Committee). In 1997, when he took a sample of water from neighbourhood tubewell for testing in Kolkata, the expert said the arsenic concentration was within the safe limit set by WHO. But within days of getting this report, Sarkar fell ill, and doctors Kolkata Medical College diagnosed arsenic poisoning as the cause. Sixty years old now, Sarkar suffers from melanosis – his skin is broken and scarred. During daylight hours, he is unable to stay outdoors for any length of time. The committee he helped set up has been disbanded. He says it was under pressure from politicians who kept insisting that there was nothing wrong with the groundwater.
A specialised water filter set up in Nadia district to remove arsenic from groundwater has been lying defunct due to lack of maintenance.