By Kevin Krajick and David Funkhouser
International health experts have called it the largest mass poisoning in history, and it is still underway. Some 100 million people in southeast Asia have been drinking from shallow wells originally drilled to provide germ-free water; but many turned out to be contaminated with naturally occurring arsenic.
Despite efforts to understand the natural processes at work, and provide safer water, many are still being poisoned, due to scant resources, poor information at local levels, and the sheer numbers of people and wells involved. The result: a slow-burning epidemic of heart disease, cancers, lung problems and compromised child development.
Researchers at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the Mailman School of Public Health have been on the front lines of the issue since 2000. They are currently leading a wide range of initiatives, including long-term health programs, continued drilling of safer wells, education and continuing investigations into the geology of arsenic contamination.
This post was first published on Dec. 6, 2013, on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog. It was updated on Oct. 14, 2014 (see below).
Guleed Ali pauses to study his notebook, standing on a steep slope covered in gray volcanic ash and desert brush, high above the present-day shore of Mono Lake in eastern California. He looks across the slope to where, a few hundred yards away, a gash of lighter gray sediment cuts across the hill, then disappears. The exposed sediment is history: A record of deposits left by Mono Lake when it stood far higher than today.
Ali picks a spot, hefts his shovel and begins clawing into the slope, raising puffs of dust, searching for a missing page in that sediment history: something higher upslope, evidence of the stream that would have fed the prehistoric lake: a layer of gravel. He finds only sand – perhaps an ancient beach. He moves across the slope, lifts and plunges his shovel back into the soft hillside.
By studying stream bed sediments, Guleed Ali tries to build a history of how water levels have changed at Mono Lake. Photo: D. Funkhouser
He is digging for dates, looking back tens of thousands of years into the last ice age: When was the lake higher? When did it shrink, and grow again? How does that chronology correspond with the advance and retreat of the massive ice sheets that covered much of North America? And how did the lake’s levels respond to changing climate?
Understanding that past will help scientists like Ali, a PhD student at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, project what might happen in the future as the world warms up. This is no esoteric question for Los Angeles, whose nearly 4 million people depend in part on Mono Lake’s watershed for drinking water, green lawns, agriculture and industry.
First published Dec. 22, 2010, on the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory web site: www.ldeo.columbia.edu.
Sediment cores taken from the Dead Sea indicate the area has dried up almost completely, probably in conjunction with the recession of glaciers. In the middle of a relatively dry period, the lake is under additional stress now from human consumption. (Photo: Adi Torfstein)
In the first project of its kind, scientists are drilling deep into the bed of the fast-shrinking Dead Sea, searching for clues to past climate changes and other events that may have affected human history back through Biblical times and before. In one early discovery, they have found that the sea has come and gone in the past—a revelation with powerful implications for the current Mideast.
Spanning Israel and Jordan, the inland Dead Sea is earth’s lowest-lying spot on land, with shores some 1,400 feet below ocean level, and hyper-salty waters going down another 1,200 feet or more. Beneath lie deep deposits of salts and sediments fed by the Jordan River drainage. The drilling, some 10 years in the making, is being conducted by investigators
from Israel, the United States, Germany, Japan, Switzerland and Norway.
Safe Water Network gives villagers in India a push toward a better future
By David Funkhouser
At a village meeting in Rajasthan, India, Ravindra Sewak of Safe Water Network
presented a challenge: We can help you build a new cistern that will improve
your water supply and your health, but you will have to pay for some of it, and
take over and maintain the system.
The villagers balked. In this desert land where just a few inches of water fall
each year, poverty rules. Typical annual incomes range from $1,000 to $1,600.
Women and children can walk several kilometers each day to fetch water for
drinking, cooking and cleaning. Dysentery is so common, Sewak said, it’s not
even considered a disease anymore.
Ravindra Sewak, Safe Water Network's India country director
With so few resources, how could they pay for this, and handle this new work? “I
had to leave at one point,” Sewak said, describing how he walked out of the
meeting to let the residents ponder the question before them. “You have to make
them believe that they have to maintain it. They need a sense of ownership and
willingness to pay so they can see the long-term vision and take responsibility. …
They need to contribute to make this work.”