Journal of Environmental science and Health

Dipankar Chakraborti, School of Environmental Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India
Abul Hussam, Chemistry Department, George Mason University, Fairfax,Virginia, USA
Mohammad Alauddin, Department of Chemistry, Wagner College, Staten Island,New York, USA

During the middle of 20th Century, South Asian countries like India and Pakistan (Bangladesh was then East Pakistan) had two major problems.The first was providing food for the huge population and the second was preventing water contaminated diseases like dihorrea, cholera, typhoid, dysentery, etc. The yearly rainfall, though among the highest in the world in Bangladesh and in West Bengal—India, was not potent enough to satisfy the needs. Moreover, India and Bangladesh, with plenty of available surface water, did not have the necessary infrastructure for the preservation, distribution, and purification facilities. The overall watershed management was poor. The farmer had to plea desperately for the rains in order to grow a harvest. The annual rainfall allowing a single harvest a year was not enough for the population and the situation would e even worse if there was a drought. Such circumstances called for alternative remedies. The annual rainfall allowing a single harvest a year was not enough for the population and the situation would be even worse if there was a drought. Such circumstances called for alternative remedies.

Sometime during the year 1950, in Charmajdia, a small village of the district Nadia, West Bengal, the first induction of groundwater by pump created a furor. Villagers fled at the sight of water gushing out from the earth. They shrieked, ‘‘Devil’s water.’’ They believed underground was the proverbial ‘‘Hell’’ where Satan resided. Hence, they refused to use that water. Nevertheless, this water came at a trying period for the struggling people. These trusting people, thoroughly advised by the government and aid-agencies, finally decided to use the forbidden water. They were given assurance that with this groundwater, the bliss of God would ring green revolution and good health. The revolution did come and the discovery of ‘Devil’s water’ became mere annals of history. The underground water survived the test of time and faith. It overcame the stigma of being a tool of the devil. The villagers drank cold water during the summer and moderately warm water during winter by merely pushing the handle of a small machine known as a tubewell.

Bangladesh and West Bengal are lands of rivers. The average annual rainfall in these two areas is 2000 mm. Bangladesh has 11,000 m3 of available surface water per capita and West Bengal has a out 7000 m3, but government and aid agencies overlooked these facts. The villagers started sinking tubewells and pumped out groundwater without any test, oversight, or regulations. The farmers took naps while their pump sets flooded the ground. The water bodies dried out during summer were refilled by pumping underground water in to them and were used for the cultivation of fish. There was even common practices of emptying vast rain water reserves by connecting them to a river through canals, thus serving as a single site for cultivation. The blessings in the form of underground water had enthralled all of West Bengal. The use of natural water was almost forgotten.

During the 80’s, the use of groundwater had assumed mammoth proportions. The irrigation system was quite dependent on the underground water. Drinking water was also supplied from underground y pipelines to distant places. Unavailability of storage-tanks at many places meant 60–70% of the water was wasted. Even during monsoon season, a few days without rain called for the use of underground water. Even though inexpensive technologies were available to purify and reserve surface water and rainwater, there were no plans or efforts on behalf of government and aid agencies to use the vast surface water and rainwater resources of West Bengal and Bangladesh and reduce groundwater extraction.

During this same time, a new kind of skin disease was discovered in West Bengal.The disease was incurable. The people afflicted with the disease lose their physical well being and their desire to live. In July 1983, the disease was diagnosed and its origin was traced to the presence of arsenic in tubewell water. During the next decade, arsenic in groundwater (above 50 microgram per liter) rose from a single village in West Bengal to a whopping number of 400 villages. Arsenic had now assumed a dangerous proportion in groundwater.