Global Water Institute Research - Mekong Boat

Arsenic in ground waters of the Mekong: Morbidity, Toxicity & Culturally Appropriate Solutions

Since the proliferation of tube wells in the 1980s, arsenic-related illnesses, including cancer and arsenicosis, have plagued communities across 27 states in India. An estimated 480 million people have been impacted by the consumption of arsenic-laden groundwater across the country, and there is currently no cure for cumulative arsenic exposure.

Interestingly, despite India’s Ganga River and the Mekong River both originating in Himalayas and containing comparable levels of naturally-occurring arsenic in groundwater, morbidity from arsenic poisoning has not presented to the same extent within Mekong communities.

Researchers from the PLuS Alliance—a collaborative initiative between three of the world’s top universities (UNSW Sydney, Arizona State University and King’s College London)—are working to determine exactly why this is, and ultimately minimise any future impacts of arsenic exposure on at-risk communities.

Our multi-disciplinary team will investigate... to form a comprehensive picture of how arsenic may impact Mekong communities in the future

Professor Gregory Leslie, UNSW School of Chemical Engineering

Professor Gregory Leslie, from UNSW’s School of Chemical Engineering, says that development in the Mekong makes this investigation all the more urgent.

“The Mekong Delta is a biologically diverse, water-rich area—and one of the most productive agricultural regions in Southeast Asia.  In countries such as Cambodia, the increasing presence of dams in the upper Mekong is expected to reduce the availability of surface water, necessitating the increased use of groundwater for irrigation and drinking supply,” said Prof Leslie.

The PLuS Alliance is drawing on its collective expertise across all three universities in the areas of epidemiology, water governance, metal toxicity, nutrition, hydrogeology, water treatment and humanitarian engineering, to critically review the incidence of arsenic exposure and illness in at-risk communities.

“Our multi-disciplinary team will investigate changing water allocations along the Mekong, arsenic disease onset and its potential links to diet, and water treatment technologies to form a comprehensive picture of how arsenic may impact Mekong communities in the future,” said Prof Leslie.

This first phase of the PLuS Alliance study will focus on working with partners in Mekong countries, particularly Cambodia, to develop a comprehensive program and also identify funding partners who will help to build the in-country capacity needed to combat this issue before its potentially devastating impacts are felt.

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