Achro Thar — also known as the white desert — is spread over 4,800 square kilometres along the Indian border that includes parts of the Sanghar and Khairpur districts of Sindh, and has a total population of around 60,000. The inhabitants of Achro Thar mainly depend on livestock or move to the urban areas to earn their livelihoods. This area lacks almost all the basic necessities of life. Water is scarce in the area with the inhabitants relying on well water or building underground tanks to store rainwater. Due to frequent droughts in the recent past, the underground water level has reduced drastically and has also been contaminated by arsenic, which has been causing endemic diseases among the populace, particularly in the village of Thoorao.
Laboratory tests have proved that the underground water in Thar has a heavy percentage of arsenic deposits. This has caused reproductive disorders in females, as well as kidney and lung problems, and bone deformation.
According to a 1999 study by the US- based National Academy of Sciences, arsenic in drinking water causes bladder, lung and skin cancer, and may cause kidney and liver cancer. The study found that arsenic harms the central and peripheral nervous systems, as well as causing heart trouble and serious skin problems.
A person can come into contact with arsenic in many different ways. Since it is a natural part of the environment, everyone is exposed to small amounts of arsenic. In Achro Thar, the most common source of arsenic is the ground water, which can enter the body through drinking the water or by eating food that has been cooked in it. Mineral deposits in some areas naturally contain high levels of the highly toxic element. Groundwater flowing through these deposits can absorb this arsenic, which can increase its amount in well water. As arsenic has no smell or taste, a layperson cannot tell if it is present in drinking water.
Arsenic removal can be achieved through advanced treatment technologies, like filtration (reverse osmosis). The equipment needed to make use of filtration is easy to install and operate. Other technologies that can achieve the same purpose include co-precipitation, aeration, conventional filtration and ion exchange.
Government agencies and social welfare organisations have failed to take steps to overcome this problem of Achro Thar. The proposed solution to this problem does not need mobilisation of heavy resources but only a little consideration and installation of water purification techniques that can make a great difference to the people of the area. The poor, ignorant inhabitants of Achro Thar have gone through immense suffering, which can be alleviated at very little cost. Consequences of failure to address the situation may cause severe economic and social disruption for the people of the area.
It is the constitutional right of the people that the state looks after their well being and provides them with basic necessities of life such as food, clean water and healthcare. However, it has miserably failed in not only redressing the problems faced by the people of Achro Thar, but also in failing to acknowledge that they, in fact, are facing a grave risk to their lives.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 12th, 2012.
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