Exploiting Groundwater in Southern Asia Could Have Poisonous Effects

water well vietnam photo

Photo by feserc via Flickr Creative Commons

As groundwater supplies dwindle, it's only natural to start digging deeper, hoping to access more water the farther down we go. However, that could lead to some serious problems, as a new study of wells in Vietnam has shown. In tests of 512 private wells that reach from 33 to 164 feed, 27% contain arsenic levels that surpass World Heath Organization standards. The wells study impact some 3 million people -- and it's just the beginning of what could be a far bigger problem since the arsenic could be a common trait in deep aquifers across South Asia. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported in the journal Nature, the study states that exploiting groundwater resources could lead to high future costs for health and water-purification processes due to the prevalence of arsenic.

"The element can trigger conditions ranging from anaemia to skin cancer. With deeper aquifers so far thought to be arsenic-free, some municipal authorities in Bangladesh, and many in Vietnam, are drilling into lower sediments. In Vietnam, a nation that began overusing its deep aquifers under French occupation more than 110 years ago, the effect is already pronounced. In the region surrounding the densely populated city of Hanoi -- with nearly 2,000 people per square kilometre -- it is difficult to escape arsenic-contaminated water, no matter how deeply you drill," reports Nature.

The data collected was turned into the first 3D groundwater map, which has allowed researchers to show where water is safe and where it is polluted in the different levels of sediment; however considering the number of people effected by water containing the deadly substance, the map also makes it clear that action needs to be taken -- and soon, since drilling deeper for water is becoming a more widespread need as supplies shrink.

3d map water arsenic image

Image credit: EAWAG

The study states, "Arsenic contamination of shallow groundwater is among the biggest health threats in the developing world... Vertical arsenic migration induced by large-scale pumping from deep aquifers has been discussed to occur elsewhere, but has never been shown to occur at the scale seen here. The present situation in the Red River Delta is a warning for other As-affected regions where groundwater is extensively pumped from uncontaminated aquifers underlying high arsenic aquifers or zones."

It's is definitely a wake-up call for what can happen, and what needs to be addressed, when trying to provide safe water to millions of people.

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