Asian conference on water quality, arsenic Nov. 23-26 in China

UNU, UNESCAP, UNICEF and WHO sponsor regional conference on "Water Quality and Arsenic Mitigation" in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, China....

TAIYUAN, China, Nov. 17, 2004 (Xinhua-PRNewswire) -- Drinking water quality has become a major concern for countries at all levels of development, as finite surface-water and groundwater resources are frequently being overexploited and polluted by human development activities. Some water quality problems are man-made, including salinity, microbiological and chemical pollution, while others are caused by natural hydrology and geochemistry mechanisms. The most serious of these are when certain heavy metals, arsenic and fluoride enter the water supply.

Arsenic in Asia's groundwater
In recent years, a number of countries in South and South-east Asia have confirmed the presence of naturally occurring arsenic in groundwater being tapped for community and household drinking water supply. The presence of arsenic in excess of the 50 ppb limit in drinking water supplies has been reported from Bangladesh, India, China, Vietnam, Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar and Cambodia, with an estimated over 50 million people at risk in these countries. The extent of this threat calls for coordinated responses by governments, international organizations and research institutions.

Arsenic contamination of groundwater is a complex problem not only in terms of its origin and transformation but also in terms of its significant health, social and economic impacts. Long-term consumption of high arsenic levels in drinking water causes arsenicosis and can lead to cancer and death, with its greatest impacts on the poorest segments of rural populations.

Arsenic in China
It was not until 1986 that arsenicosis was first officially diagnosed in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region and-during the 1990's-arsenicosis cases were also diagnosed in Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Jilin, Qinghai, Ningxia, and Liaoning. Xinjiang, Shanxi and Inner Mongolia are particularly seriously affected.

Arsenicosis has been increasing in China as tens of millions of medium to deep wells have been drilled and continue to be drilled by farmers following economic reforms that began in the late 1970s. These wells often tap into arsenic-rich aquifers, thereby exposing a large sector of the rural population to chronic arsenic poisoning.

Arsenic poisoning is also being caused by burning coal mainly in Guizhou province and in certain areas of the southern provinces where local inhabitants use the arsenic-rich coal for cooking, heating and drying local staple foods such as corn and hot peppers.

The full magnitude of the problem in China remains unknown but estimates put the population exposed to arsenic-contaminated water, dried foods and air at over 20 million, with the population exposed to fluoride contaminated water at 100 million.

The inter-regional conference
To assess progress on the Water Quality and Arsenic Mitigation issue and to plan future concrete action, United Nations University (UNU), United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF are co-sponsoring and co-organizing the conference Nov. 23-26 in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province.

The purpose of the event is firstly to strengthen national and sub- national capacity building in the area of drinking water quality monitoring and surveillance. The overall aim is to mobilize governments, donors, research and financial institutions to fully engage on key water quality issues with a key focus on Arsenicosis in the Asian region. Progress with arsenic mitigation efforts and technical innovations will also be assessed by reviewing existing strategies, operational research results and lessons learned.

Chinese and international media are invited to cover salient aspects of the conference (see schedule attached), and avail of the opportunity to visit affected villages in Shanxi province to witness first-hand the effects of the arsenic problem and efforts being taken to tackle it. Delegates, including some of the world's foremost water safety experts, will also be available for media interviews.

The conference will be conducted in English, with simultaneous Chinese translation.

For more information, contact the following:
* UNICEF Office for China
-- Charles Rycroft, Tel: +86-10-6532-3131 x1301 or Email: crycroft@unicef.org
-- Li Liu, Tel: +86-10-6532-3131 x 1303 or Email: liliu@unicef.org

* WHO China Office
-- Roy Wadia, Tel: +86-10-6532-7189 x681 or Email: wadiar@chn.wpro.who.int

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