Patna, 27 March 2006: Agnidev Singh, although distinct in many ways, is a typical person suffering from arsenic poisoning. Until a year ago, he had not heard of the substance that had been affecting his body silently. Now, with extensive testing of water having been done in his village in Patna district's Maner block, hardly two kilometres from the river Ganga, he knows that he should drink water drawn from handpumps painted blue, never red. "Earlier, I knew nothing. Now, I do," he says.
Extensive testing has confirmed the presence of arsenic in 11 districts in the state of Bihar.
Four years ago, a "strange" rash appeared on Agnidev's skin, which turned into itchy spots soon after. Around the same time, some people in the neighbouring villages reported similar symptoms. This was not considered extraordinary as getting a skin infection due to excessive heat, high humidity and difficult living conditions is quite common in rural Bihar. Typically, neither Agnidev nor most others visited the nearest doctor trained in basic treatments and cures, who was just three kilometres away from the village.
The presence of arsenic in the region was first noticed in Bangladesh in 1991, and in Nepal, adjoining Bihar, in 2001. Arsenic was first found in Bihar in 2002, and extensive testing has since then been carried out, especially along the river Ganges. This has confirmed the presence of arsenic in 11 districts. Of the 70,000 samples lifted randomly from areas within 10 kilometres from river Ganges, 10 per cent were found to be above the prescribed "danger mark" of 50 parts per billion (ppb), while 26 per cent had some arsenic (10-50 ppb). Five of the 11 districts had higher concentrations than others while the remaining 6 were found to have moderate concentration.
Testing opened the doors for greater understanding of the issue. UNICEF State Representative Bijaya Rajbhandari says, "Extensive testing has made it possible to undertake mitigation work in endemic areas." UNICEF demonstrated use of sanitary wells and constructed 50 in each of the 11 districts as models while rainwater harvesting systems were set up in schools. With these models having proven to be successful, the Government is now setting these up in all affected villages and schools with technical assistance from UNICEF.
With mitigation efforts reaching more and more villages, arsenic-free water is getting increasingly available.
The testing ability of the Public Health & Education Department (PHED) is now greatly enhanced, with water testing laboratories in place not only in the state capital Patna but also in other arsenic-affected districts. UNICEF has prepared manuals to enhance understanding of arsenic, its impact, and mitigation. The assistance of health department in dealing with arsenic as a public health issue has been elicited. UNICEF has also organised rigorous training for chemists and analysts which has made field data authentic. Based on testing, the PHED, with UNICEF and Government of India support, have mapped water sources. The unsafe sources have been marked red and the safe sources blue.
The data is being used by the Government of Bihar to get funds for water quality-related issues. Recently, the Government of India allocated Rs. 85 million (around USD two million) for Bihar's water quality programme. The state government is engaged in implementing an action plan which aims to provide safe water to all habitations by 2007. In addition, communities are being informed about unsafe water sources so that they keep themselves safe. More than 72,000 water sources have been tested in 11 districts and have been painted either red (indicating they are unsafe) or blue (if they are safe). People have been informed about the safety status of water sources at the time of painting as well as through village meetings, pamphlets and posters.
"I drink water only from safe sources. So does my family, and the village," says Agnidev Singh. He gets a vigorous nod from a crowd of twenty that surround him. They all have access to arsenic-free water now. "It's a blessing," says Singh.