- People in Karnataka are facing a potential health crisis.
- They have been consuming groundwater with toxic substances.
- Karnataka is one of the three worst-affected states in the country.
Editor’s Note: Series on groundwater contamination focuses on India’s struggle for potable water and how it has been a health risk in several states including Bihar, Karnataka, and Haryana. This is the second article in a series of three ground reports looking at the status of the ‘Jal Jeevan Mission’ in the 3 states. Read the first article here: Bihar: 5 years on, 22 districts facing arsenic contamination await govt’s promised Jal Jeevan Mission.
The stories of countless people suffering from intestinal infections have some clear echoes of socioeconomic realities, but they also highlight the groundwater crisis in Karnataka. In early September 2021, the first person from Vijayanagar’s Makarabbi village fell ill after consuming contaminated water. Six villagers died within ten days, and more than 150 people got sick after drinking the water. The 2,000-strong village has four borewells, three of which have been deemed unsafe for human consumption. The incident underscored a disturbing reality — the state’s groundwater contains fluoride and nitrate, which makes crores of people susceptible to fluorosis and cancer.
Dr Himanshu Kulkarni, a hydrogeologist and executive director at the Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (ACWADAM), said the three primary contaminants in groundwater are dissolved solids (including high levels of salinity), fluoride, and nitrates.
“Hard-rock aquifer systems dominate the State of Karnataka. Groundwater exploitation in such aquifers has produced various consequences surrounding aquifer depletion and groundwater contamination, with these two often coterminous to each other in many regions of the state,” he told News9.
“Fluoride is a geogenic contaminant,” Dr Kulkarni explains. “And given the dominance of hard-rock aquifers, as well as a long history of transitioning from shallow sources of groundwater to deeper drilling, fluoride contamination of groundwater has proliferated in complex ways in different parts of Karnataka.”
“Nitrate is generally a consequence of the use of productivity-enhancing chemical inputs to agriculture, which along with the rise in irrigation and increased water application to farmland, results in the nitrate loading of groundwater resources,”
“In addition to this, salinity ingress in coastal regions and the drying up of shallow sources along with pumping water from deeper aquifers (with higher levels of dissolved solids), leads to the overall increase in higher loads of dissolved solids in groundwater.”
He asserts that the overarching effects of climate change and overexploitation of groundwater compounded the problem.
“Apart from these, poor waste disposal, sewage treatment and the mixing of fresh water and wastewater are often the principal causes for groundwater contamination in urban areas,” he concluded.
According to a study by the Department of Geology at the University of Kerala, elevated arsenic in groundwater has been reported from hard rock aquifers (water-bearing rocks) in Karnataka, primarily in gold mining areas of Yadgir district and the southern region of Gulbarga district.
For this, experts blame the chemical waste dumped on the ground surface.
These materials containing arsenopyrite leach out arsenic and become part of groundwater in the rainy season.
Arsenic levels in groundwater in Ingaldhal and surrounding villages in Chitradurga district were also found to be elevated.
Cities rely on borewells
With nearly half of Bengaluru relying on groundwater, it is no surprise that borewells are being drilled to unprecedented depths. In the recent past, water could be found at a depth of 300 feet in the lakeside neighbourhoods. Now, the water level has plummeted to 700-800 feet. In some areas, the groundwater has receded to the depth of 1600 feet.
Arjun Anatha lives in Varthur, a Bangalore suburb, where he owns roughly 2 acres of land. He claims he could not sow any crop on his land for the past five years due to depleting and contaminated groundwater. Arjuns land that has been left useless due to the groundwater problem.
“I might have to dig at least 1500 feet to irrigate,” he claims. “It will cost between 10 to 12 lakhs. It’s not only expensive but there is a risk of contaminated water, which could impact land and crops,” he added.
Experts believe falling groundwater levels will only aggravate the problem. People are obliged to dig deeper to get groundwater due to depletion, increasing the risk of contamination because these metals are found in greater quantities inside the earth than on the surface.
“As we go deeper, the water gets contaminated due to geological reasons, but it’s also the industrial chemicals flushing into surface water that is gradually leading to a significant groundwater contamination,” Ambika, senior geologist, District Groundwater Office, Bengaluru Urban, said.
Kumar Satyam, a consultant at ACWADAM, said,” Mixing untreated water with the receiving water source can have a negative effect as it lowers the oxygen levels and increases the risk of pathogens from sewage. As the phosphate level increases in the water, it becomes biologically unsuited to support any life form and poses many health problems due to the increased quantity of bacteria and viruses.” Drinking water booth in Bangalore rural district.
Why does it matter?
Increased groundwater arsenic levels have been linked to neurological and cardiovascular diseases.
Dr Rashmi SR, nephrologist and consultant at Manipal Hospital, Varthur Road, Bengaluru, says that contaminated water can cause illnesses.
“Microbial contamination can cause diseases like Cholera, Typhoid, and Diarrhoea, and chemical contamination can cause Chronic kidney disease if the exposure to such chemicals is prolonged,” she explains.
“Some elements in water, such as fluoride, can cause chronic interstitial nephritis in certain areas near the Andhra-Karnataka border.”
While it’s difficult to determine the cause of an illness without conducting research, many heavy metals are known to cause chronic kidney disease.
“Heavy metals in water have a high association with chronic tubulointerstitial nephritis, which occurs in the kidney and is well known to cause chronic kidney diseases. I worked in Kolar and saw many patients who had chronic kidney disease caused by high fluoride levels in the water.”
In 22 villages in Karnataka’s Vijayapura district, fluoride concentrations in groundwater from 62 bore wells and fluoride-related medical conditions were investigated. An ion-sensitive electrode was used to assess fluoride amounts in groundwater in those villages.
The results showed that the fluoride concentration in drinking water was higher than the permissible limit. Clinical symptoms such as gastrointestinal discomfort, arthritis, joint aches, and lower limb abnormalities were found in some people with high urine fluoride contents, indicating fluorosis.
The case of Arsenic contamination and mental health
The World Health Organization has designated arsenic as one of ten chemicals that can cause serious illness.
Water contamination can also cause social, psychological and mental health problems in addition to physiological effects. Drinking arsenic-laced water, for example, can cause arsenicosis, a condition with a wide range of health implications.
In Sandur and Hutti, towns in the Bellary and Raichur districts, respectively, a sample survey of 20 schoolchildren aged 10 to 14 was conducted. Water samples from both villages were tested for arsenic and fluoride levels.
Arsenic levels in the research group’s children’s hair and nails were found to be extremely high. Notably, there was a statistically significant difference in mean I.Q test scores between the control (30.55) and research groups (17.95).
From scientists to policymakers
The Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), South West Region in Bengaluru, maps aquifers to prepare taluka-specific management plans.
“We normally collect and analyse water samples twice a year. Last year, we did not receive the report. We last tested in October 2021 and submitted water samples to CGWB for examination, but we are yet to receive a result,” said Ambika.
In July 2019, the central government launched a new ministry, Jal Shakti, to address all water challenges in the country by merging ministries, including the ministries of water resources, drinking water, and sanitation.
The Jal Jeevan Mission, which is being carried out by the Jal Shakti Ministry in collaboration with state governments, aims to provide piped drinking water to every rural family in the country.
Karnataka’s Rural Development and Panchayat Raj Minister, K.S. Eshwarappa, stated that the state government is committed to providing tapped drinking water to all homes by 2024.
Tackling groundwater contamination
It is difficult in a country like India to address the quality issues in groundwater due to different geological conditions, Kumar explains.
“The wastewater treatment requires a decentralised management way that treats the waste right where it generates. It involves small cluster type services to provide services to the residents.
Dr Kulkarni argues that the lack of local data and systematic approach to preventive and mitigative contamination measures are the main stumbling blocks in addressing contamination in different parts of Karnataka.
“Unless local strategies of preventing and mitigating contamination along with systematic management and governance of aquifers are encouraged, problems will persist.
“Managing and governing aquifers, with a focus on reviving, restoring and recharging the shallow aquifers that were part of a long-standing heritage in the State of Karnataka, holds the key in addressing many of the current day groundwater challenges in the State,” he added.
Kumar believes that reducing, reusing, and recycling are the most effective solutions. On the other hand, the reduction appears somewhat challenging to achieve. As a result, the only viable option is to reuse and recycle wastewater.
“Defining and mapping aquifers can also help identify and preserve the water quality. In addition, using aquifers only for drinking water so that they don’t come in contact with irrigation or industrial groundwater sources,” Kumar said.
“Studying and understanding the underlying rock strata and geology shall be helpful to identify further measures to be taken along with regular chemical and biological analysis of water samples at village levels.