Building Sustainable Arsenic-Safe Water Solutions in India
By Eileen Lambert
The mounting arsenic health crisis in India surfaced first during a preliminary survey in 1976, but it wasn’t until 1983, when a patient fell ill in the district of South 24-Parganas that the linkage between water supply, arsenic and illness was finally established. Years of illness across the state of West Bengal had preceded the diagnosis, but the causes of these illnesses were unknown and largely unresearched.
Today, malignant hyperkeratosis lesions on the skin, liver illness and other organ deterioration are recognized as indicators of arsenic poisoning in the water. Sadly, the slow progress of contamination still leads people to think they are drinking safe water when the level of contamination is actually quite deadly.
West Bengal, one of 28 states in India, has a population of about 80.2 million with approximately 4.6 million people at risk of drinking water with a concentration exceeding 0.05 mg/L or higher, which is the threshold for contamination, according to a study by the School of Environmental Studies at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. Mystery surrounds the onset of arsenic in the drinking water, but what is known is that arsenic is a colorless, odorless, naturally occurring element that exists in groundwater throughout the world.
Tubewells that are certified arsenic-safe or arsenic-free in one year can produce contaminated water in subsequent years, many times without notice by users until it is too late. Some scientists theorize that arsenic is sinking deeper and deeper into the soil as the water table is tapped, affecting deep wells that once produced potable water.
Problem of detection or expansion
The question is, “is the arsenic problem growing or is it just being detected more accurately,” said Dr. Anirban Gupta, a professor at the Bengal Engineering and Sciences University in Shibpur (BESUS). Dr. Gupta joined the effort to treat arsenic contaminated water in the late 1990s through his university, which had a team working on the first hand pump-attached community filter to be installed in West Bengal. “During testing of many public and private sources, more and more arsenic-contaminated sources were detected over time,” Dr. Gupta said.
In 1996, Water For People approached BESUS to develop a filter that could be fitted to an existing tubewell, would be easy to operate and could be managed by the community. The goal was a sustainable solution that could be built completely in India using locally purchased components without the need for regular addition of chemicals.
Individuals at BESUS and Water For People (including Dr. Arun K. Deb, who was employed at Lehigh University and became involved through his local Water For People committee of volunteers) collaborated to create a sustainable arsenic filter for the residents of West Bengal. Water For People funded the original program with $10,000.
The outcome was the development of the Amal Arsenic Removal Filter, which bears the name of its inventor at BESUS, Dr. Amal Dutta, who died in 1997. (Amal also translates to “pure” in the native Bengali language.) Later, the Amal filter began as a single filtration chamber, evolved to a dual compartment design and more recently has been built with multiple taps and an electric pump in some cases.
Water enters the Amal filter and flows through 51 inches of activated alumina, which adsorbs the arsenic and gets rid of iron as well. All told, 125 filters have been installed in West Bengal directly benefitting 64,776 people. Each hand pump (non-electric) can produce about 6,000 liters (1,585 gallons) of arsenic-safe water per day, supporting about 300 families per filter with the community’s involvement in regular maintenance.
Lehigh University’s involvement in the program later grew through additional efforts by Dr. Arup K. SenGupta, who taught at the Pennsylvania university but wanted to assist with life-saving efforts in his native country. This collaboration earned several international awards for the combined team devoted to the arsenic program.
Water enters the Amal filter and flows through 51 inches of activated alumina, which adsorbs the arsenic and gets rid of the iron as well. A total of 125 filters have been installed in West Bengal directly benefiting 64,776 people. Each hand pump (non-electric) can produce about 6000 liters (15,85 gallons) of arsenic-safe water per day, supporting about 300 families per filter, with the community’s involvement in regular maintenance.
Project expansion and challenges
Dr. Gupta now heads the technical aspects of the project, along with the doctoral students in his program. One of Dr. Gupta’s main challenges in the locations he serves is the assumption that wells drilled previously by the government are contamination-free for an indefinite period. In many cases, the community applies trust to a water source that is not properly maintained and which all too often is broken beyond repair.
“It is almost impossible for the government to continually test and maintain water filters spread across such a large area,” Dr. Gupta said. “Arsenic is seeping deeper into the soil and affecting more water sources. Plus, technology is not foolproof and while many filters are OK at this moment, they all may fail eventually due to lack of maintenance.”
The Amal filter efficiently achieves the technical requirements needed to provide safe drinking water to villages in West Bengal. But a purely technical approach comes with a variety of obstacles that affect sustainability. These obstacles include: a lack of awareness of the arsenic problem and its symptoms before it is too late; scalability difficulties, including geographical challenges and resource limitations which impact vehicle availability, maintenance and training; and a limited lifespan of the alumina within the filter.
“When water sources are shared with the community, people believe that the responsibility of ensuring safe water and sanitation belongs to the government,” said Rajashi Mukherjee, Water For People–India’s country coordinator. “Hence, there are no efforts to maintain the infrastructure which are in a state of disrepair or defunct. Considering the scale of need, government resources are never enough to ensure proper maintenance.”
When water sources are shared with the community, people believe that the responsibility of ensuring safe water and sanitation belongs to the government. Hence, there are no efforts to maintain the infrastructure which are in a state of disrepair or defunct. Considering the scale of need, government resources are never enough to ensure proper maintenance.
Making the connection
Dr. Gupta notes that because the onset of illness from arsenic poisoning is slow, people often do not make the connection of the water quality to their overall health. Water For People brings community management expertise to the program and works with Dr. Gupta and his team to address the challenges that other water infrastructures face in India — getting the community educated and invested in a solution that will bring them healthier water for decades to come.
“People believe that water is a right and that it should be freely provided by the government,” said Dr. Gupta. “They say, ‘my father drank the water, I drank the water as a child and nothing happened. Who cares about the water quality?’ We really have to drive home the fact that once they are sick from the water, their bodies are already greatly affected.”
Water For People brings community management expertise to the program and works with Dr. Gupta and his team to address the challenges that other water infrastructures face in India. Raising awareness about the severity of the problem is the first task.
Getting the community educated and invested in a solution that will bring them healthier water for decades to come is next. Educating and providing safe drinking water within the school system helps to facilitate that message throughout the community.
Partnering with corporate sponsors, BESUS and Water For People have provided Amal pumps to 25 middle and high schools. “Through schools, we create an environment for children to learn about safe drinking water and proper sanitation and then they bring these lessons back home,” stated Ned Breslin, acting CEO of Water For People.
One catch within the schools has been scalability. A hand pump-attached filter with a single tap does not have the capacity to produce enough water to serve all of the students in a typical school in India. Consequently, BESUS upgraded the design to an electricity-driven pump with 10 to 12 taps.
Water For People–India worked with the schools to help establish a small infrastructure fee to support the WATSAN (water and sanitation) fund program for maintenance of the system. It costs each student about six to 24 Indian Rupees per year, which equates to $0.12 to $0.49 (USD).“We realized that the development funds in the schools were not enough to sustain proper maintenance of WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) infrastructure,” Ms. Mukherjee said. “Clean toilets and safe water are traditionally not a priority and in all probability, these would be the last to be considered for investment.
“To ensure that the program was sustained, there was a need to introduce the fee and guide the schools about its utility and management. The method of collection also becomes a way to promote the messages and importance of safe water and sanitation.”
The success is proven in the sustainability. “Every pump installation we’ve financed in the school system is still operational. That is a hard record to beat,” Breslin said.
An important aspect of community involvement in safe drinking water also is focused on the effort required to keep the pump functional. Rather than providing resources in every location to maintain the pump, members of the community are required to manage the pump.
The water quality must be tested monthly, the alumina adsorbent must be regenerated, clogging caused by iron deposits must be removed and broken parts must be fixed. As with schools, residents of each village are asked to pay a small fee to use the pump to pay for maintenance.
With monetary investment comes committed involvement. And with involvement comes support and economic growth. Ranjan Babu was a retired bus conductor living in Nabarun Sangha. He now works as the caretaker for the arsenic treatment filter in his village.
Sumitra Dey is the caretaker of the filter in her village in charge of the daily cleaning, scheduling the alumina regeneration and overseeing the pumps daily use. The money generated by the use of the pump has enabled the Water Management Committee to organize events, provide loans to families wanting to build latrines and expand the capacity of the tank.
Bhola Biswas once sold trinkets on suburban trains prior to the installation of the Amal filter in his village. When the filter was installed in Ashoknagar, Biswas found a new, more profitable profession as a rickshaw-van driver bringing safe drinking water to families in the village daily. This filter now provides enough work for 10 rickshaw-van drivers.
With communities becoming increasingly aware of the arsenic contamination prominent in their water, BESUS and Water For People are now working on innovative ideas to make the processes more efficient and ultimately more scalable. The time and resources required to regenerate the alumina adsorbent cannot be maintained, according to Dr. Gupta. When the process is done on-site, the affected village is without safe water for up to two days.
To ease this process, the partners created a central regeneration facility where spent alumina is brought and regenerated alumina is sent back to the village pump, bringing the offline time down from two days to merely three hours. Spare parts are also kept at this central location to speed up the maintenance of the filters. “This trusted partnership between Water For People and BESUS gives me and the students I work with the chance to help people in need,” Dr. Gupta said. “We are able to work on the technological development of the filter at BESUS and through this partnership, we can provide safe drinking water in a more professional, sustainable way.”
About the author/organization
Eileen Lambert is a member of the Communications Department at Water For People, and Jody Valente and Jim McKinley are credited with the photos for this story. Founded in 1991, Water For People (www.waterforpeople.org) is a non-profit international development organization based in Denver, CO that supports safe drinking water and sanitation projects in developing countries. Water For People partners with communities and other nongovernmental organizations to help people improve their quality of life by supporting sustainable drinking water, sanitation and health and hygiene projects. Water For People supports projects with professional development advice, financial support and volunteer technical services. Typical projects include protected spring-fed community water systems, gravity-fed systems, wells with hand pumps, latrine construction, operator training and hygiene education. Water For People is currently working in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
About the corporate sponsors
Sponsors such as ITT Corporation and ITT Watermark, the philanthropic arm of the corporation, are helping the organization to expand the program throughout schools in West Bengal. ITT Watermark recently committed to a three-year agreement with Water For People, including $600,000 the first year to help provide both safe drinking water and adequate sanitation in West Bengal schools. This effort will work to improve water and sanitation at 120 schools, including Amal filters where needed.
“It’s indisputable that the lack of safe water fuels the entire poverty cycle. It’s a fundamental and intrinsic barrier to economic development,” said Steve Loranger, chairman, president and chief executive officer of ITT. “We ultimately feel that by applying our resources in a focused area with a sense of substance around what we’re doing will help ensure sustainability. Having not only technology, but hygiene and reinforcement, makes a difference.”