Friday, March 22 2002

The Times of India

Arsenic contamination has been a major problem in West Bengal. Despite myriad experiments and lengthy studies, the situation continues to be grim.

Recent soil tests in arsenic-affected blocks of North 24 Parganas have shown that around 6.4 tonnes of arsenic is being deposited in the farmlands in these areas. As a result, crops that are being grown here, including paddy, wheat, and vegetables like papaya, potatoes and radish, have also shown a dangerous level of arsenic contamination in them.

Independent tests carried out by Jadavpur University, Cornell University of New York, Dhaka University and CSIRO of Australia the Food and Agricultural Organisation have shown similar results, with the maximum amount of arsenic deposited in rice husk and arum.

Carrying out a field survey in Kolsur village of Deganga block, it was found that every kilogram of rice husk contained 1,900 micrograms of arsenic. The husk is the main food for cattle, which increases the possibility for their entering human food systems.

These were the revelations of a briefing paper prepared by Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS) on sustainable management of water resources.

“Due to over dependence on underground water for irrigation, water level has fallen substantially… Unrestrained lifting of underground water with high power pumps has resulted in over concentration of arsenic, iron and other chemicals in water making it unfit for consumption. Use of arsenic contaminated water for irrigation has resulted in alarming deposit of arsenic in vegetables, wheat and rice,” the paper said.

The decline in ground water levels had a severe negative effect on biodiversity. As water level declined, numerous plants, which thrived on ground water, have perished. Apart from affecting biodiversity and ecological balance, it has adversely affected the life of animals due to the scarcity of fodder.

The paper criticises the policy setting up large dams for irrigation projects.

“Big dams have destroyed the water-holding capacity of major rivers due to heavy siltation. Consequently, many rivers have dried up, thus severely affecting the supply of surface water …Loss of surface water has increased the earth’s temperature as well,” the paper states.

March 22 is observed as International Day for Water by the UN General Assembly in 1992. “Studies have shown that without better management of water resources and related ecosystems, two-thirds of humanity will suffer from severe to moderate shortages of water by 2025,” Arjun Dutta of CUTS said.

CUTS is at the forefront of a movement to pressurise the Centre to formulate a national policy on water management. “Our suggestions will be in line with the government policy, which will speed up the implementation process,” Dutta said.