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Arsenic Crisis in the Indian Subcontinent: Sustainable Engineering Solution

Arsenic poisoning affects nearly 100 million people living in Bangladesh and West Bengal, India due to naturally occurring arsenic found in drinking water drawn from underground sources. While the problem may seem complex and difficult to address, the solution is actually easy-to-operate and culturally compatible.

Arsenic is the most toxic naturally occurring contaminant in groundwater. Arsenic removal units (ARUs) lower the arsenic concentration from as high as 500 parts per billion to less than 50 parts per billion, which is the Indian standard of maximum contaminant level of arsenic in drinking water. Arsenic removed from groundwater is converted into a low-volume solid waste and contained in coarse sand filters with minimum arsenic leaching potential.

Currently, more than 150,000 villagers are using arsenic-safe potable water from ARUs attached to ground well pumps, which do not require chemical additions, pH adjustments or electricity. Water is pumped into the unit—the same way water was previously pumped from the well—and then it passes through beads of activated alumina that remove the arsenic.

A villagers’ committee takes over ownership and day-to-day maintenance of the ARU after installation. Each family drawing water from the ARU pays a monthly tariff of 20 Indian rupees, or 50 U.S. cents, for 40 liters of arsenic-free potable water everyday—one person can collect their water in less than three minutes. The findings of the project can be extended to mitigate similar arsenic crisis in other countries including Cambodia, Mexico and Vietnam. The project resulted from a long-standing collaboration between Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and Bengal Engineering and Science University in India and was partly funded by Water For People.

This project was selected by ASCE as a finalist for the 2008 Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement (OCEA) Award.