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Fresh hope for arsenic-struck communities in Southern Punjab

Zahida Parveen points to a poster explaining the dangers of arsenic poisoning

By Naureen Naqvi

BASTI PATHANISTAN, Punjab Province – Zahida Parveen Chandyo's eyes sparkle as she recounts her struggle to achieve her current position – a volunteer and councillor in the local government in this conservative area of southern Punjab. “Chandyo is a Baloch caste with deep-rooted cultural traditions," she says. "They do not send girls to school.” Despite the concerns of her clan, however, Ms Chandyo, who is 50, achieved a graduate education. As an educated woman in this rural community, Ms Chandyo felt privileged and empowered, and decided to work to empower the women of the area. Today, she works as a volunteer in an issue that concerns her community deeply: in many areas of southern Punjab, the groundwater is heavily contaminated with arsenic. I am proud to be working on this issue in the Baloch community," says Zahida, a volunteer and councillor working on arsenic mitigation. "It directly affects women and children.”

“I am proud to be working on this issue in the Baloch community," says Zahida, a volunteer working on arsenic. "It directly affects women and children.”

As a volunteer with UNICEF's Arsenic Mitigation Project in southern Punjab Province, Ms Chandyo works to educate the women and young girls of her community. With about 25 women gathered around her, she points to a large poster that shows the dangers of arsenic poisoning. In her native Balochi language, she explains how arsenic poisoning can be prevented.

“Most of the women and children in this settlement have visible skin-related problems,” says Ms Chandyo. A recent survey found that out of the 101 households in Basti Pathanistan, half recorded concentrations of arsenic of 50 parts per billion (ppb) – five times the World Health Organisation's standard of 10 ppb. In the household where Ms Chandyo has collected her group, the only water source had arsenic concentrations of 400 ppb. It has now been marked with red paint in warning.

Arsenic poisoning may cause a variety of problems, such as skin cancer and keratoses of the feet. If left untreated, it may result in death. The groundwater in many parts of Punjab Province is severely contaminated.

A household pitcher installed with UNICEF supported arsenic removing technology makes water safe for drinking

In Basti Pathanistan and other places, however, through a UNICEF/ IKEA intervention, public awareness and mobilisation is increasing. The intervention has developed alternate water supplies, and installed arsenic removal tanks. The community members of Basti Pathanistan have organised their own maintenance committee to ensure that their arsenic removal tank is kept in working order. “This is the first time that the communities are taking ownership of an intervention," Ms Chandyo says.

Ms Chandyo concludes her presentation and an active discussion ensues. Ms Chandyo questions her group, ensuring that they have understood the dangers of arsenic contamination and know how to take action to protect their and their families' health. Nooran Bibi, a 70-year-old elder of the community, is acutely aware of the importance of this discussion. “I feel as if I was ignorant all my life but now I can guide my children,” she says.

Till date, UNICEF has supported partners in screening over 265,000 water sources for arsenic contamination in and training 7,200 health professionals and local government staff in arsenic monitoring and mitigation, including 233 health professionals in case diagnosis and management of arsenicosis.



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