In Pakistan, huge swathes of the country sits on arsenic-contaminated groundwater. PHOTO: AFP

From water scarcity to water infused with alarming levels of arsenic – good job, corrupt government

No environmental emergency has been put in place despite the fact that millions of people could be at high risk.

Raja Khalid Shabbir August 27, 2017
I recently came across an alarming news story about high levels of arsenic in our groundwater supply. Unfortunately, this is turning into a serious issue in developing countries such as Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and other parts of the subcontinent.

Recently, a nationwide study based on sampling approximately 1,200 groundwater pumps was carried out. The study was led by Dr Joel Podgorski, a Swiss geologist and computer scientist. The study illustrated that the amount of arsenic in the groundwater of various Pakistani areas dotted along the Indus River and its tributaries, including Multan, Lahore, Kasur, Sheikhupura, Gujranwala and around Hyderabad, have reached alarming levels.

This shocking news has not triggered any environmental emergency in the country as yet, despite the fact that 50 to 60 million people reside in the identified hotspots and could be at a high risk. The earth is deteriorating in front our very eyes and yet no one is willing to step outside their everyday lives and bubbles to give it enough importance. The death of the environment is a phenomenon that will not go away by simply avoiding it, so the question that arises is what can the average person do to improve these conditions?

But before we address that, let’s first try to understand what we’re dealing with.

What is arsenic?

Arsenic is a major heavy metal contaminant which divides into two types – grey and white. While the former is non-poisonous, the latter is extremely poisonous.

According to the guidelines put forth by World Health Organisation (WHO), 10 micrograms of arsenic per litre of water is safe for usage and consumption. But the findings submitted by the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) have declared 50 micrograms per litre, thus one can gauge the level of harm this can cause.

 In his final report, Dr Podgorski said,
“Very high concentrations, above 200 micrograms per litre, are found mainly in the south. This is an alarmingly high number which demonstrates the urgent need to test all drinking water wells in the Indus Plain.”

Does arsenic in groundwater directly affect the consumer?

The potential sources of arsenic consumption are through drinking, cooking and irrigation purposes. Even when a cigarette is lit, the smoker is enveloped in an arsenic cloud because the tobacco plants used in the manufacturing of cigarettes also absorb arsenic present in the soil.

What are the effects of arsenic?

Immediate adverse health effects of arsenic poisoning include gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea, intense thirst, continual inclination to empty the bowels and burning pain in upper abdomen. These may be followed by sensory symptoms such as numbness and tingling of the extremities and death in extreme cases.

Prolonged exposure to arsenic results in the appearance of transverse white lines on nails called ‘Aldrich-Mees’ lines’, thickening of palms and soles, rain drop skin pigmentation, diabetes, neurotoxicity and cardiovascular diseases.

How can the consumer detect arsenic in the water?

That’s the tricky part, because arsenic is colourless, tasteless and odourless, making it virtually impossible to detect it without laboratory testing. This may explain the reason for its unchecked spiralling over the recent years. Additionally, the indifferent attitude of concerned departments has allowed this problem to further aggravate.

How can we avoid consuming arsenic water?

We can reduce human exposure to arsenic by raising general public awareness, filtering and screening drinking water supplies. Those supplies where arsenic content is found to be above the WHO or national levels should be labelled unsafe till treated.

Other methods include use of microbiology to save surface water (rainwater), arsenic removing technologies (adsorption, ion exchange, oxidation) and the dilution of high content arsenic source water by mixing lower arsenic content source water.

Small under-the-sink units can also be used to lower arsenic concentration of drinking water such as the ones they have in the US.

The fact that something so dangerous has been detected in our water supplies and nothing substantial is being done to fix it, speaks volumes about how careless our government is. Even a basic commodity such as water is not pureIt is high time the concerned authorities recognised the magnitude of this national threat so that the millions of lives at stake can take a sigh of relief.
Raja Khalid Shabbir The author is a medical doctor based in Islamabad. He tweets at @drkhalidshab ( You can follow him here .
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Aqif Chaudhry | 3 years ago | Reply I remember reading an article about arsenic in drinking water over thirty years ago. We have developed amnesia. Perhaps by forgetting about it the problem would go away.
Parvez | 3 years ago | Reply Your expectation that the government should do something about this serious issue is misplaced......because they don't have to drink this water, nor do their children. Billions have been spent only in Sindh, in the name of the people, to provide drinkable water......and it's widely rumored that most of the money landed up in Dubai.
Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ