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Alarming rise in groundwater pollution in Southwestern Punjab

Groundwater pollution in southwestern Punjab, India is causing toxic elements like uranium, arsenic, and manganese to contaminate the water.

By Ground report
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A recent study published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research has raised concerns about the escalating levels of groundwater pollution in southwestern Punjab, India. The study reveals that the water quality index, a tool for evaluating surface water quality, has seen a significant increase in 2020 compared to 2000.

Intensive agriculture and Groundwater contamination

The researchers attribute this alarming trend to intensive agricultural practices and over-exploitation of groundwater due to declining rainfall. The overuse of fertilizers and the resulting contamination from geological sources have led to the leaching of highly toxic elements such as uranium, arsenic, manganese, zinc, copper, lead, and iron from aquifer rock or sediment into the water.

The study also highlights that the total acreage under rice crop has increased to 28,400 hectares in 2019–2020 from 5,000 hectares in 2001–2002. This increase could be contributing to the groundwater pollution.

The research team led by DP Shukla, Associate Professor, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, IIT Mandi, used spatial tools to examine how groundwater quality has changed across more than 315 sites in Punjab between 2000 and 2020. They found that about 31.11% of sampling sites were above the permissible limit for sodium in 2020.

Assessing groundwater quality over time

“We aimed to assess how groundwater quality for drinking purposes changed from 2000 to 2020 at different places. It also sought to examine ten-year trends in health hazards associated with contaminants like nitrate and fluoride, along with identifying regions with notably subpar groundwater quality,” said Dr. D.P. Shukla, Associate Professor, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, IIT Mandi, in a statement.

High levels of magnesium and sodium can cause health issues such as depression, nerve problems, nausea, muscle twitching, and even fatality in severe cases. In 2020, 6.35% of locations were categorized as having very poor water quality and 12.38% were classified as unsuitable for drinking.

The study identified major areas in districts Ferozepur, Moga, Fazilka, Bathinda, Mansa, Barnala, Sangrur, Muktsar and Faridkot as hotspots of declining water quality throughout the two decades. However, southwestern Punjab does not solely limit this issue. At various points between 2000 and 2020, people have also identified other districts such as Ludhiana, SAS Nagar (Mohali), Patiala, Amritsar, Gurdaspur, Tarn Taran and Pathankot as hotspots.

Groundwater quality declining in Punjab

The study, which measured pH, electric conductivity (EC), and various ions from over 315 sites in Punjab, has unveiled a worrying trend. The water quality in the southwestern region of Punjab is deteriorating, posing a significant threat to the health of its residents. On the other hand, the northeastern regions, which are fed by Himalayan rivers, have relatively better water quality.

The extensive agricultural activities in the region have led to severe groundwater pollution. Given that 94% of Punjab’s population depends on groundwater for their drinking water needs, this pollution has resulted in severe health issues.

Punjab, once hailed as the “bread bowl of India”, is now sadly known as the “cancer capital” of India. This grim title reflects the severe impact of water pollution on human health.

This study not only highlights the alarming level of groundwater pollution in Punjab but also serves as a vital resource for policymakers. It underscores the urgent need for mitigation measures and raises awareness among residents about areas with unsafe drinking water.

The findings call for immediate attention from the state government to assess the quality of groundwater for drinking and irrigation purposes. The researchers emphasize that this issue requires urgent investigation.

The paper recommends regulating the use of fertilizers and implementing environmentally sustainable agricultural practices in regions where the water table is close to the surface. These measures are crucial for mitigating the groundwater pollution crisis and ensuring safe drinking water for the residents of Punjab.

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