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International Drilling to Recover Aquifer Sands (IDRAs) and Arsenic Contaminated Groundwater in Asia



Distribution of arsenic in groundwater of South and Southeast Asia.Elevated groundwater arsenic (As) concentrations impact the health of over 100 million villagers across Pakistan, Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, and China who rely on tubewells as their main source of drinking water. Groundwater from these areas can contain 10 to 100-times the World Health Organization's guideline of 10 μg/L for As in drinking water. Chronic exposure to such elevated As levels is known to cause deadly cancers, cardiovascular disease, and inhibit the mental development of children.

There is broad agreement within the international scientific community that a key factor underlying this major public health crisis is the release of As to groundwater upon reductive dissolution of iron (Fe) oxyhydroxides, a process that is mediated by micro-organisms involved in the mineralization of reactive organic carbon. What remains unsettled despite more than a decade of research is whether groundwater or sediment is the main source of the reactive organic carbon. It is also unclear to what extent adsorption of As onto aquifer sands could delay the contamination of adjacent or underlying aquifers that are low in As. Without being able to address these two key issues, it is not possible to make meaningful predictions about the time scale over which low-As aquifers could be contaminated by the incursion of high-As water drawn by massive groundwater pumping in certain parts of the affected region. This is a crucial question from a public health perspective because selectively tapping low-As aquifers has proved to be more effective for lowering As exposure than most other forms of mitigation, including groundwater treatment or rainwater harvesting.

The guiding hypothesis for this project is that the distribution of As in reducing groundwater is anchored to the local geology across a range of spatial scales and therefore naturally evolves on 100-1000 year time scales. Human perturbations of the natural groundwater flow could threaten aquifers in Asia that are currently low in As on 10-yr time scales, however. This full proposal to ICDP, likely to be the first of several devoted to groundwater quality over the next decade, seeks to identify the limited set of parameters that need to be considered in order to make meaningful predictions about the vulnerability of a low-As aquifer in the absence of a full-scale study.

(Fig.: [A] Map of population density within regions where groundwater As concentrations are potentially elevated. [B] Distribution of As in groundwater as a function of depth within five areas indicated by white rectangles in [A]. The vertical dashed line marks the WHO guideline of 10 μg/L. Sources include Shrestha et al. (2004), Nickson et al. (2007), BGS/DPHE (2001), Bushmann et al., (2008), Winkel et al. (2011), Guo et al., (2003), Guo et al. (2008), Deng et al., (2009), Han et al., (2010), and Gao et al., (2010).)



Asia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Vietnam



21° 2' N, 105° 51' E (Please scroll down to end of page for more information.)


Project Start and End
  • workshop date: April 25 to 28, 2011 in Hanoi, Vietnam


Programs and Funding


Principal Investigators
  • Alexander (Lex) van Geen, Columbia University, The Earth Institute, Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory
  • Arthur (Art) J. Spivack, University of Rhode Island, Graduate School of Oceanography
  • Thomas R. Holm, Illinois State Water Survey
  • Bibhash Nath, National Cheng Kung University, Department of Earth Science
  • Kazi Matin Uddin Ahmed, University of Dhaka, Department of Geology
  • Roger Beckie, University of British Columbia, Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences
  • Huaming Guo, China University of Geosciences (Beijing), School of Water Resources and Environment
  • Dieke Postma, Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, Department of Geochemistry
  • Laurent Charlet, Université Joseph Fourier de Grenoble, Institut des Sciences de la Terre, Lab. de Géoph. Int. et Tectonoph., Obs. of Earth and Planetary Sc.
  • Thomas Neumann, University of Karlsruhe, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Institute for Mineralogy and Geochemistry
  • Alagappan (AL) Ramanathan, Jawaharlal Nehru University, School of Environmental Sciences
  • Harue Masuda, Osaka City University, Department of Geosciences
  • Bishal Nath Upreti, Tribhuvan University, Department of Geology
  • Abida Farooqi, Fatima Jinnah Women University, Fatima Jinnah Women University, Department of Environmental Science
  • Prosun Bhattacharya, Royal Institute of Technology, Department of Land and Water Resources Engineering
  • Michael Berg, Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, Department of Water Resources and Drinking Water
  • Jonathan Richard Lloyd, University of Manchester, School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, Geomicrobiology Group
  • Pham Hung Viet, Hanoi University of Science, Centre for Environment Technology and Sustainable Development


Cooperating Principal Investigators

No Co-PIs found for this project


Partners and Contractors



Aquifer, Arsenic, Asia, Drilling, Groundwater, ICDP-2012/01, IDRAS, Pollusion, Public Health, Sampling


Current State



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