Standing on the platform of the only functional community dugwell in his village, 58-year-old Sanjay Kumar remembered the time he was just eight. “It was 1966, and I was in third standard when the first handpump was installed in our village,” he said. “Back then, we had over 26 functional dugwells. But slowly, handpumps took over our village and our lives. At present, we have 300 handpumps in a village of 350 families.”

Initially, the residents of Badi Madarpur village in Gogri block of Khagaria district in Bihar, where Kumar lives, were very happy with the handpumps. After all, both the government and international health agencies had assured them that they were safer than dugwells – shallow holes dug down to the water table that are commonly found in rural areas.

The villagers were told that unlike water from open and unprotected dugwells – which can become contaminated from human and animal excreta and other pollutants – causing water-borne diseases like diarrhoea, handpumps were safe as water was extracted from a deeper and cleaner aquifer. Soon, handpumps became a status symbol and dugwells were abandoned.

Cancer scourge

It took 20 years for the villagers of Badi Madarpur to realise that something was very wrong.

Within two decades of the installation of handpumps, villagers started reporting diseases like liver cancer, skin lesions, skin cancer, and hard patches on the palms and soles of feet (hyperkeratosis). Similar cases were reported from other districts of Bihar too. But, no one could pinpoint the exact cause till, in 2002, a resident of Ojhapatti village in Bhojpur district, who had lost his wife and mother to liver cancer, got his tubewell water tested at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. Results showed the water contained excess arsenic, or levels above 50 parts per billion – the maximum permissible limit for drinking water according to the Bureau of Indian Standards.

The permissible limit of arsenic in drinking water is actually 10 parts per billion as per the Bureau of Indian Standards. But the standards setting organisation says that in the absence of a safe drinking water source, a higher permissible limit of 50 parts per billion “may be allowed”.

According to the World Health Organisation, drinking water rich in arsenic over a long period (five to 20 years) leads to arsenic poisoning or arsenicosis, skin problems, skin cancer, cancers of the bladder, kidney and lung, and diseases of the blood vessels of the legs and feet. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified arsenic and arsenic compounds as carcinogenic to humans.

“Some six-seven years ago, PHED [Public Health Engineering Department] officials painted our handpumps red and told us not to drink water from the marked handpumps,” said Kumar. “A board was put up outside our village declaring it to be arsenic-affected. But, no provision for an alternate source of drinking water was made.”

Around the same time, in December 2007, Megh Pyne Abhiyan, a public charitable trust, along with its five local partners, started testing the groundwater in five districts of north Bihar. Khagaria district, where Badi Madarpur is located, was part of this exercise. Results from all five districts showed extensive groundwater contamination due to arsenic and iron.

“We noticed a peculiar result. Both arsenic and iron were untraceable in water samples from open dugwells,” said Eklavya Prasad, managing trustee of Megh Pyne Abhiyan. “Whereas these contaminants were prominently present in water samples from handpumps in the same area.”

For instance, of the 21 handpump water samples tested, 12 had arsenic above 10 parts per billion. In sharp contrast, not even a single sampled in-use dugwell showed the presence of arsenic. Only four unused and poorly maintained dugwells reported arsenic.

Further research and water testing results made Megh Pyne Abhiyan believe that one of the ways to ensure arsenic and iron free water to the villagers was the revival of dugwells.

Science of arsenic-free dugwells

The Public Health Engineering Department was quick to dismiss Megh Pyne Abhiyan’s findings. But, researchers offer a scientific reason behind the peculiar results of the organisation’s study.

“The ultimate source of arsenic in groundwater is the arsenopyrite mineral,” said AK Ghosh, an expert on arsenic pollution. “[This] is lying at the bottom of the aquifer [in Bangladesh, West Bengal and Bihar] for the last 100-200 years. It was a harmless mineral till early 1970s when dugwells were a common source of water in rural Bihar.”

When tubewells began to get popular, groundwater extraction became rampant. This changed the chemistry of the aquifer, breaking the insoluble arsenopyrite into highly soluble arsenic ions and iron ions, both of which started showing up in the water.

Arsenic and iron are mostly absent in water drawn from dugwells. This is because in an open well, water is exposed to oxygen. This leads to oxidation of the arsenic ions and iron ions, which get converted to arsenic oxides and iron oxides respectively. These oxides are insoluble in water, and settle down at the bottom of the dugwell.

Ghosh, 65, is in charge of the department of environment and water management at AN College in Patna. He said that villagers in Bihar seemed to know how to tackle the problem of arsenic in water even if they were unaware about it. “Across the villages of Bihar, there is a practice of breaking water, locally known as paani todna,” said Ghosh. “People move the bucket up and down inside the well before pulling the water out. They don’t know the scientific reason behind it, but are actually oxidising the arsenic and iron in the water.”

Ghosh has tested over 45,000 groundwater samples across Bihar. Of these 44,000 are from tubewells and 100 are from open dugwells. He hasn’t found even a single dugwell contaminated with excess arsenic. Bacteriological contamination is a concern, but treating diarrhoea is easier than treating cancer, said Ghosh.

Water expert Himanshu Kulkarni too highlights the link between arsenic and tubewells. “Statistically speaking, there is a strong correlation between tubewells and arsenic contamination,” said Kulkarni. “And, almost an inverse relationship in the case of dugwells due to the oxidation process.”

But Kulkarni, the executive director of Pune-based Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management, which has tested and mapped groundwater in north Bihar, added that hydrology and hydrogeology of arsenic mobilisation in the groundwater needed more research and resources.

A revival of dugwells

Megh Pyne Abhiyan and its partner organisations have tied up with Kulkarni’s organisation to revive dugwells. So far, 64 dugwells have been revived and another 41 repaired in five districts of north Bihar.

The Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management conducts testing of dugwells to ensure safe drinking water for the villagers. “We have been testing water of the revived dugwells and haven’t found arsenic,” said Kulkarni.

Badi Madarpur’s dugwell, which had been filled with garbage and debris, was revived in 2010 after a long process of community mobilisation. “One of our karyakartas started living in the village and mobilised a group of 20-25 youngsters,” he said. “They cleaned it, plastered it and now maintain it,” said Prem Kumar Verma, secretary of Samta, a Khagaria-based voluntary organisation.

Water quality testing conducted by Megh Pyne Abhiyan shows water from Badi Madarpur’s dugwell is arsenic free, whereas a handpump water sample from the same village had 60 parts per billion of arsenic, above the acceptable upper limit.

Design is an important part of dugwell revival.

“We ensure a parapet wall is constructed around the dugwell,” said Prasad. “There is proper drainage around it. Benches are also constructed to convert it into a community area.”

In Tharuat region of Pashchim Champaran, largely populated by Tharu scheduled tribe, villagers plant a neem tree next to the open dugwell so that the neem leaves that fall into the dugwell disinfect the water.

Public Health Engineering Department officials, however, are not convinced. “Water from open dugwells has high bacteriological contamination,” said Bhogendra Mishra, executive engineer, Public Health Engineering Department (Bettiah). “Only deep tubewells of PHED can provide safe drinking water.”

The department’s Anshuli Arya, a principal secretary, and SN Mishra, executive engineer (monitoring), were unavailable for comment.

According to Ghosh, water management was too serious a business to be left to the government alone. “As a child, I used to visit my grandparents’ village in Bhagalpur district,” he said. “There were no handpumps then. On a pre-decided day, all the villagers used to do shramdan (voluntary work) to clean their dugwells and remove the silt at the bottom. Water was a community owned resource.”

Rather than junking the traditional wisdom of dugwells, it is time the Bihar government makes water everybody’s business.

Nidhi Jamwal is a freelance environment journalist based in Mumbai. Her Twitter handle is @JamwalNidhi.