Pakistan's children thirsty for safe water
RAHIM YAR KHAN, Pakistan, 31 August 2006 – Surrounded by vast mango groves and freshly tilled fields, Basti Yar Muhammad, a village of 200 people in the south of Punjab Province, is bracing itself for a storm. Dark, pregnant clouds hang low and a hot wind stirs up a veil of dust. The village welcomes the rain where daytime temperatures soar.
The storm means that the villagers can collect rainwater for drinking and cooking. For in this part of Punjab, some of the wells they have relied on for years are contaminated with arsenic, a naturally occurring but poisonous chemical that can lead to a variety of problems, ranging from skin cancer to keratoses of the feet.
The chemical makes its way into groundwater from arsenic-rich rocks and sediments often found near rivers. Punjab, which means ‘The Land of Five Rivers’, is Pakistan’s most fertile and heavily populous province. Most of the people living in Basti Yar Muhammad are hard-working cotton growers, spending long hours in the fields under the blistering sun.
“Everyone drinks more than 20 glasses of water a day during summer,” says Azra Abu Bakar, a mother of a five-year-old daughter and a nine-month-old baby girl.
Children at risk
More than 80 per cent of people living in Azra’s district have access to drinking water in their homes, usually a hand-pump well situated in the compound near the cooking area, yet sub-standard water quality, like in all parts of the country, continues to blight people’s health.
Children are especially susceptible to the harmful effects of high arsenic intake. There is also an added risk for newborns and infants, as arsenic may be passed from mother to child during pregnancy or through breastfeeding.
As part of an overall approach to improve water quality in Rahim Yar Khan District, UNICEF and its local partners have started an arsenic mitigation programme.
Traffic-light warning system
Work has already started on identifying the water sources in the district that are contaminated with arsenic.
Teams from the District Department of Health and Human Resource Development Society have tested water from selected wells, using testing kits provided by UNICEF. Any well found to have traces of arsenic above 50 parts per billion (ppb) has been marked with red paint, and households have been instructed not to use the water for drinking or cooking without treating it. Those wells deemed safe are marked with green.
Locally made clay pitcher filters are being distributed to households free of charge, and larger stainless-steel arsenic removal equipment is being provided to primary schools.
In addition to testing, a campaign is under way to raise awareness amongst villagers on the dangers and symptoms of arsenic poisoning.
In Basti Yar Muhammad, arsenic at 50 ppb and above was found in well water in 11 out of 41 households. Azra’s home was included in the testing survey, and her well now has a prominent red cross on the hand pump. She is, however, able to use the water for washing and bathing as arsenic does not penetrate skin.
“I feel very much happy that the people told us whether or not our water was clean,” says Azra, “We now feel secure because we can use alternative sources of water.”
In a close-knit community such as Basti Yar Muhammad, Azra is able to rely on her neighbour’s green-marked well for water, and she also uses a pitcher filter to treat her own water.
There are already promising signs that communities are responding positively to the mitigation programme. When the initiative started in 2004, it was difficult for communities to accept that the water they had been drinking for a long time was off limits. Now villagers are clamouring for more filters – and are willing to pay for them.