Due to their ignorance or compulsions, the Thar people have been consuming subsoil water containing fluoride concentration as high as 7-30 mg/l which may cause chronic health problems, including dental and skeletal fluorosis, pronounced limbs, arthritis, early aging and crippling owing to the absence of any remedial measures, it was observed.
The seminar titled “Health impact of Thar water” was organised by the Dow University of Health Sciences (DUHS) in connection with World Water Day, observed on March 22. Sindh Assembly Speaker Nisar Ahmed Khuhro was the chief guest.
According to a joint research conducted recently by the DUHS, Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR) and an NGO, Aware (Applied Education and Renewable Energy), 79 per cent of the ground water samples tested some time back contained a high concentration of fluoride, i.e. beyond 1.5mg/l, hence not fit for human consumption.
The relevant WHO guidelines suggest that fluoride concentration in drinking water should not go beyond 1.0mg/l.
Dr Iftikhar Ahmed, the Vice-Dean of the Dow International Medical College and Director of the Ojha Institute of Chest Diseases, shared the details relating to the health issues being faced by the Thar population, and told the audience that fluorosis caused by excess accumulation of fluoride was responsible for adverse effects on the local people's health. “The Thar desert has been identified as one of the most fluoride-affected areas of Pakistan,” he said, adding that the structural disorder of dental enamel caused by chronic and excessive use of fluoride compounds was common in young people of the area. The disorder, he observed, was also a source of their social rejection and embarrassment, particularly in the case of females. “Fluoride exposure during the first year of life increases the risk of dental fluorosis far more than at any other age,” he said.
Safe water supply vital
Referring to his survey of the area and extension of medical cover to the people of Umerkot, Chahchhro and Mithi, Dr Ahmed said he had come across people suffering from bone illnesses, weaker extremities, partial fusing of vertebra, neurological manifestations, cord compression and endemic fluorosis. “At a time when this population has no access to safe water, the only way to protect them from the effects of flourosis is to ensure provision of well or tubewell water to them. The helpless Thar people deserve caring by health professionals but patient handling is a problem in that area,” he observed, and urged the government, NGOs and philanthropists to join hands to provide to the Thar people with water filtration plants and set up medical camps there on a regular basis.
Dr Tahir Rafique of the PCSIR said that in addition to saline water, the Thar population relied on deep well water containing high fluoride concentration. The ground water quality in the desert has become deteriorated due to physical and chemical changes that took place in the water flowing above and blow the ground surface. These changes, he said, could be attributed to the granite rocks present across the desert.
He informed the audience about his work that included water sampling and preparation of a water filtration model for the Thar area. According to him, in all 424 samples of subsoil water were collected from Mithi, Chachhro, Umerkot, Nagarparkar and Diplo areas of Thar and 21.28 per cent of them were found safe for human consumption. Among the rest, he added, 21.04 per cent were categorised as lower risk, 21.28 per cent medium risk, 17.02 per cent high risk and 19.39 per cent very high risk samples.
Dr Rafique said that the PCSIR model for de-fluoridation was workable in the area but the government should provide necessary funds for remedial measures and installation of filtration plants.
The Aware Executive Director, Ali Akbar Rahimoo, described Thar as 'a hostile wasteland of sand desert and barren rocks' which, he observed, received erratic rainfall. “Thar receives rains in the monsoon (July-September) while the main source of drinking water for the rest of the year is subsoil water,” he pointed out.
Every household has to spend 3-5 hours daily to fetch water for drinking and cooking purposes and feeding the animals. The animals are essential to pull the water buckets used to fetch water from over 50ft deep wells.
He said that Umerkot, Chachhro and Mithi sub-districts were the most adversely affected areas in terms of fluoride contamination. “Diesel engine-operated tubewells and reverse osmosis system are very costly and this is very difficult for the poor Thar people to bear the recurring cost of quality maintenance,” he said, and urged the government to address the issue through a safe drinking water policy for the Thar population.
DUHS Vice-Chancellor Prof Masood Hameed Khan said that his institution had already installed a reverse osmosis filter plant in the Thar area and would continue to extend such assistance to the population under its social responsibility obligations. “We have agreed to donate funds for some filter plants and expect that the government and legislators will also contribute generously to this noble cause,” he said.
Nisar Ahmed Khuhro told the seminar that it was really a matter of concern that the Pakistanis in this 21st century were still not able to get the benefits of development and they still were discussing the issues of basic rights like availability of safe drinking water. “I am also shocked to learn that about 20 water treatment plants installed in the area at a cost of millions of rupees could not be made functional for want of funds for recurring expenses and fuel,” he remarked, and promised that he would motivate members of the Sindh Assembly in the next session to donate at least one-month salary to the Thar people.
Suhail Sangi of Aware and Zuzzer Ali Shamsuddin of the PCSIR also spoke.