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QAU researcher races against time to Understand Arsenic Poisoning of Water in Pakistan

Pakistan is a water-stressed country, relying more and more on its groundwater resources to cope with its burgeoning population and economic needs. At the same time, unchecked and unregulated industrial and commercial development, low standard agricultural practices across the country are threatening to poison the groundwater and render it unfit for human consumption.

At Quaid-i-Azam University, Dr. Abida Farooqi, Assistant Professor, Department of Environmental Sciences, is leading an effort to understand the implications and mechanisms of this dread phenomenon.

Dr. Farooqi has successfully raised tens of millions of rupees for urgently needed research in this field and has published a book titled Arsenic and Fluoride Contamination: A Pakistan Perspective (New York: Springer, 2015). This book presents an up-to-date overview of arsenic and fluoride pollution of soil and groundwater in Pakistan. It includes the author’s doctoral dissertation on Lahore as a case study and describes the mechanism of pollution on the basis of the findings in that area.

The book highlights the concrete situation in Pakistan – including the severity of the problem, its health effects and the risks posed to the people living in affected areas by these two major pollutants– and points out essential research areas that call for immediate attention. As such, it draws attention to the need for management strategies in the affected areas and offers a valuable reference work on Pakistan for students and researchers alike.

“Today, perhaps 100 million people in South and South-East Asia are drinking water with arsenic (As) concentrations up to 100 times the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline and Pakistan is among one of those effected countries. Groundwater arsenic and fluoride contamination was reported in 2002 in Punjab Pakistan. While millions of rural inhabitants in Pakistan, who rely on shallow (typically less than 100m deep) wells as their main source of drinking water is contaminated with arsenic and fluoride. The children in the affected areas of Pakistan are more vulnerable to fluoride contamination” said Dr. Abida Farooqi.

“There is growing evidence of a major impact on human health of prolonged exposure to Arsenic from drinking hand pump water. The people of Pakistan are at the high risk of cancer and bone deformity because of the presence of these contaminants. An intensified effort is therefore needed to minimize the negative impacts on human health, children in particular, of continued dependence on untreated groundwater from hand pumps” she added.

Dr. Abida Farooqi has successfully raised funds form national and international donors including Rs. 2.38 million from US-AID (2016), Rs. 30 million from Pakistan-US Collaborative Research with US co-principal investigator Dr. Alexander Van Green (2015-18), US $100,000 from TWAS (Trieste, Italy) for hydro-geochemical studies (2015-17), Rs. 4.65 million from the HEC (Pakistan) to evaluate the sustainability of deep groundwater as an arsenic free resource in the Indus basin (2015) and Rs. 1 million from the HEC for upgrade of laboratory facilities.

She emphasized that it is an area of vital importance to Pakistan, indeed, a matter of life or death for millions, and needs to be given maximum priority by the Government and International donors.