LAHORE, 15 December (IRIN) – Tens of thousands of people in the eastern city of Lahore and other cities of the Punjab face a threat from unsafe ground water, which contains dangerously high levels of arsenic. So far, little tangible effort has been made at the official level to counter the problem.
The impact poisoned water can have on communities has been evidenced at villages around the Lahore and Kasur area, including Manga Mandi, Kalalnawala, Kot Asadullah and Shamki Bhattian.
In 2000, it was reported that hundreds of people, especially children, in the Manga Mandi area were suffering crippling deformities, mainly to the legs and spine, leaving them in acute pain and in some cases unable to walk. The problem was officially attributed, after a media uproar, to excess fluoride levels in the water.
Some reports maintained pollution by effluents from factories in the area had contributed to the problem. Tubewells and piped water were provided to some communities over the next two years; a handful of afflicted people received treatment at government facilities – and the hue and cry over the matter died down.
DEFORMITIES DUE TO CONTAMINATED WATER
However, reports suggest people in villages close to Sahiwal, Kasur, Multan and Lahore continue to suffer similar deformities. In Shamki Bhattian, off the Multan Road in Lahore, Zahida Bibi, 24, told IRIN her four-year-old son, and “many other children” in the area suffered weak, bent legs as a result of “poison in the water.” Certainly, some of the children appeared to suffer a bone deformity, and also had pitted, yellowed teeth as well as skin ailments.
When asked, Dr Almas Nayyer, who works as a volunteer in the Manga Mandi area with a local welfare group, ‘Siddique Trust’ and has examined children suffering from deformities, said their condition could be the result of high fluoride levels, and possibly also elevated arsenic levels in water.
“Both these substances are highly toxic, and have serious health consequences,” he told IRIN. He added that there was still “no final conclusion” as to the reasons for the tragedy, although fluoride was still seen as the most likely culprit. There is however no explanation for the fact that while elevated levels of fluoride have been known to exist in the area since the 1940s, cases of deformities emerged only in 2000, with villagers denying earlier incidents had occurred.
Compared to fluoride, the consequence of chronic arsenic poisoning can be even more severe. A survey conducted by the Geological Survey of Pakistan, and completed in July 2004, found abnormally high levels of arsenic and elevated fluoride in water collected from areas around Lahore. The geochemical study found that water samples showed contents of fluoride ranging between 1.4 to 22 parts per million (ppm) and arsenic content ranging from 20 to 920 parts per billion (ppb). The contents are in excess of World Health organization (WHO) standards, which are 0.8 ppm for fluoride and 20 ppb for arsenic.
CLEAN WATER AS A HUMAN RIGHT
“The issue of safe drinking water has become a major human rights concern. More and more people in the country are forced to consume water that is not clean, or is laced with dangerous toxins, and this is a huge problem. The death of at least 40 people in Hyderabad after drinking contaminated water this summer is just one example of the scale of the threat, and it is possible thousands are being poisoned even now,” Fatima Yazdani, research assistant at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), told IRIN.
While almost no research has been carried out on the impact of excess arsenic in water around Lahore, studies show prolonged exposure to arsenic can lead to skin cancer, vascular disease and organ damage leading to death. Shorter-term exposure has been linked with still births and skin roughening.
The Director of the Environment Protection Department (EPD) laboratories in the Punjab, Dr Shugufta Shahjehan, told IRIN that “no death has been reported due to arsenic poisoning in areas of high concentration.” She however acknowledged that this did not mean people were free of health conditions linked to arsenic poisoning, and said: “We have asked the health department to hold a survey and determine how many people are being affected.”
However, so far, official attention towards the issue remains almost non-existent. Even reports sought four years ago, in the wake of the mass bone deformity findings, have yet to be completed – and it is unclear how many people across the Punjab are suffering such complaints. Press reports over the past year have indicated cases of deformities, attributed by locals to water, have emerged in an increasing number of areas.
But these reports have not been followed up, and the ground situation remains unclear. Perhaps still more crucially, steps to remedy the problem are not in sight. To a significant extent, the poisoning of ground water is linked to the dumping of effluents into open water ways and the ground by factories. In complete violation of the Pakistan Environment Protection Act of 1997, almost all of the 3,000 major industries in Punjab are discharging effluents into drains, canals and rivers.
Laws to prevent them from doing so, or to penalise those who fail to set up waste-water treatment plants, remain almost completely unenforced. In addition, arsenic and other toxins are also thought to be entering ground water as a result of residues from the millions of litres of pesticides and fertilisers used each year. The unregulated use of the pesticide sprays has emerged as a major environmental problem in the country, and is now thought to have an impact on water safety as well.
“This is what the findings available suggest, but more research is needed to determine the precise reasons for the poisoning of water, and then to ensure safe water reaches people,” Fatima Yazdani said.
For people such as Zahida at Shamki Bhattian, the water they drink poses a constant threat. “The water I collect from the tap in our village tastes metallic. It was not like this when I was a child. Everyone complains about it, and we are convinced it is crippling our children. But what can we do, there is no other source and we still have to drink it,” she said, holding her son in her lap, and absent-mindedly stroking his badly bent legs as she contemplates his future, and that of others similarly afflicted in the community.