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IAEA General Conference
45th Regular Session

Biting the fly
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Finding safe waters below

Serving Human Needs

Finding safe waters below

IAEA Technical Cooperation project supports search for safe groundwater, as Bangladesh battles arsenic contamination and Ethiopia moves to tap vast river basins
by Peter Rickwood, IAEA Division of Public Information

Solving the disaster of arsenic contamination in Bangladesh requires the urgent analysis of its reserves of groundwater, in the view of Mr. Babar Kabir, head of the country’s Arsenic Victims Rehabilitation Trust.

At least 20 million people are drinking arsenic poisoned water from millions of so-called tube wells that have been sunk, usually 15 to 50 metres deep, throughout most of rural Bangladesh, he said.

In some villages the wells provide safe water. "The geological complexities require that every well is screened," said Mr Kabir. There is also concern that other elements may have an impact on health, he said.

The number of wells remains uncertain "because people took it upon themselves to sink them and there is no registry," Mr Kabir said. But an estimate puts the number of hand pumps in use in Bangladesh at about 10 million.

Tube wells were introduced in a programme to eradicate the risk of disease from drinking surface water that, up until the early 1970s, was resulting in the death of nearly a quarter of a million children every year.

Most of Bangladesh is a delta with soft soils and a high water table. The arsenic, in the mineral rich sediment of the River Bengal Basin that Bangladesh occupies, is believed to have come from the Himalayas.

Consumption of arsenic-contaminated water puts a potential 70 million people from a population of 130 million in Bangladesh at risk, Mr Kabir said. He was among featured speakers at the IAEA’s Scientific Forum, which was held 18-19 September in conjunction with the IAEA General Conference in Vienna.

"Only about 10 per cent of the people drinking arsenic contaminated water display visible symptoms", Mr Kabir said.

He said that despite the threat from arsenic, "women who are basically managers of water in rural areas" will continue using contaminated wells when alternative sources are a long distance away.

Through an IAEA Technical Cooperation Project, Bangladesh is receiving assistance in applying the tools of isotope hydrology to mitigate the effects of arsenic contamination and to identify deep sources of groundwater that is safe.

"Isotope hydrology has proven that these deep aquifers are safe," Mr Kabir told the Forum, attended by scientists, government officials and development experts from around the world, and held to draw attention to nuclear and related technologies that may not be well known to the public.

Simpler techniques than drilling test bore holes to determine water quality are needed to determine the water quality in different aquifers, he said. "There is an urgent need to immediately conduct a systematic analysis of groundwater quality."
Amha Mulegeta
Mr. Mulegeta

"In Ethiopia, where conditions teeter between flooding and drought, isotope hydrology is a powerful tool in understanding the country’s complicated groundwater regime", Mr. Ahma Mulegeta, head of the Ethiopian Science and Technology Commission, told the Forum.

Ethiopia, one of Africa’s largest nations with a population of about 65 million people, has "vast water resources, 12 major river basins, but knowledge about water resources is very scanty," said Mr. Ahma .

The potential for irrigation, in a country where more than 80 per cent of the population is dependent upon agriculture and per capita income is among the lowest in the world, has not been developed, he said.

Establishing a master plan for better use of its water resources is among Ethiopia"s top priorities, said Mr. Ahma.

"Given the problems the country faces no efforts can be spared," he said.

Isotope hydrology will be an important tool in the programme, which uses an integrated and comprehensive (river) basin wide development approach. The IAEA is providing support in its establishment.

Isotopic techniques are already being used to study groundwater in Ethiopia, for exploiting geothermal energy, and in analysis of leaking dams, Mr Ahma said. "In all of these activities the results, using the technique, have been quite satisfactory.

"In a terrain as complicated as Ethiopia this is a very powerful tool to help us understand the groundwater regime."

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