140 million people in southern Asia are exposed to arsenic daily through contaminated groundwater. Thousands die annually from cancer. Experts say there are alternative solutions but there is a lack of funds.
Four of Asia's major water systems are contaminated with arsenic, including the Mekong River
There are four major water systems in southern Asia that are contaminated with arsenic – the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta and the Irrawaddy, the Mekong and the Red.
Scientists pinpointed the source in the Himalayan mountains over 15 years ago but it was unclear how the arsenic was making its way into groundwater, 100 feet below the surface.
Arsenic poisoning often causes skin disease
Moreover, it was unclear how to help the millions of people who drink the water daily and are thus constantly exposed to the poison.
People drink contaminated water anyway
Although many people know that the water is contaminated, they continue to use it because "they have been faced with surface water problems for quite some time now," said Scott Fendorf, a researcher at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
"There are obviously lots of surface-borne pathogens that drove them to start using groundwater. And now the problem is that that they have found out that the arsenic is in the groundwater. It's a natural contaminant comes down from the Himalayas."
According to the World Health Organization, every year thousands of people in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Myanmar and Vietnam die of skin cancer and other cancers which are thought to be caused by chronic exposure to arsenic.
Alternative solutions are crucial
Therefore, Scott Fendorf says it is important that people find other solutions and stop drinking groundwater from the wells. "The choices are they either have to find an alternative water source, so they would have to think about going back to surface water and some types of filtration in that water, or to save rain water. Or they have to find clean groundwater sources or use filters that remove the arsenic."
Ponds dug for fish rearing and storing water for agriculture are a primary source of arsenic-contaminated water
Payden, who works for the World Health Organization in Southeast Asia, agrees that there are alternative solutions and ways of overcoming the problem, which she points out is not everywhere in the Southeast Asian region.
"It's mainly in those countries where groundwater is used for drinking purposes and other various purposes. It's not the whole country that is affected because many people have other sources of water. It's only in those countries where the groundwater has arsenic contamination."
Experts in the field argue that it is important that enough funds be put aside to help overcome the problem of arsenic contamination. Only then will the UN be able to ensure that everybody in the world has access to clean drinking water, which it recently declared as a fundamental human right.
Author: Pin Manika
Editor: Anne Thomas