Arsenic in Ground Water in Parts of Middle Ganga Plain in Bihar-An Appraisal

Dipankar Saha, S. N. Dwivedi, Sudarsan Sahu
Bhujal News Quarterly Journal, April-Sept, 2009


Ground water in different parts of the world has now been identified with unacceptably high concentration of arsenic, known for its carcinogenic health effects. The areas contaminated with arsenic in groundwater include Bangladesh and parts of India, China (including Taiwan), Myanmar, Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, South West United States, Hungary and Romania (Chatterjee et al 2005). In India, Bangladesh and some other developing countries, regulatory limit of arsenic in potable water is being considered as 0.05 mg/L. However, WHO (1993) has recommended a drinking water guideline value of 0.01 mg/L, which has also been endorsed by Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS 2003).

Arsenic groundwater contamination in Bihar was first detected in the year 2002. Subsequent investigations in the Gangetic Plain of Bihar revealed its wide occurrence, affecting 57 blocks in 15 districts of the state. The patches of high groundwater arsenic (>0.05 mg/L) zones are confined in Newer Alluvial belt along the river Ganga affecting both the active and the older flood plains. The contamination is confined within the top 50 m of the thick multi-cyclic sand, clay, sandy clay and silty clay sequence, jeopardizing the hand pump based rural drinking supply.


Arsenic affected blocks in the state of Bihar In Ganga Plain, in the upstream of Rajmahal Hills, groundwater arsenic exceeding 0.05mg/L was initially detected in 2002, from two villages, Semariya- Ojhapatti and Doodhghat, in Bhojpur district of Bihar, on the southern bank of the River Ganga (Chakraborty et al 2003). The villages are located on a monotonously flat, flood-prone tract of the Son-Ganga interfluve region. Investigations by CGWB, immediately after reporting of this, indicated maximum concentration as 0.178 mg/L. All the affected wells are hand pumps within a depth range of 20-35 m bgl. The dug wells (depth <8m) are found to be free from contamination.

The Hydrogeological studies in Bhojpur district has revealed wide variation in concentration, resulting in patchyness in distribution. The hotspots (As >0.05 mg/L) are confined within the Newer Alluvium (CGWB 2006). With an understanding that the North Bihar belt adjoining the arsenic contaminated Tarai belt of Nepal (Tandukar et al 2001) is also affected, a detailed analyses has been carried out by UNICEF under technical guidance from CGWB. In nine districts of north Bihar bordering Nepal, the analysis (total sample ~3100) has revealed arsenic load below 0.05 mg/L. Subsequently a blanket survey of the spot sources in a 20 km wide corridor along the course of the river Ganga has been carried out by PHED, Govt. of Bihar. Sampling from the reported hotspots, analyses and hydrogeological investigations renders an elaborate understanding on the spatial distribution of arsenic hotspots (CGWB and PHED 2005). Out of ~82000 samples analysed, 11% exceed 0.05 mg/L. Fifty seven blocks, in 15 districts, located on both the banks of Ganga are affected (Table 1, Fig. 1).

In a district-wise assessment, Bhojpur and Buxar are found to be relatively more affected, where 16-20% of the samples exceed 0.05 mg/L. Other districts following are Bhagalpur, Katihar and Samastipur where 11-15% of the samples are contaminated. The lesser affected districts are Saran, Begusarai and Vaishali where < 5% of the samples are found contaminated. Darbhanga, Lakhisarai, Purnea and Kishanganj are affected locally in one or two blocks.



About 90 % of the geographical area of the state is underlain by Gangetic alluvium laid during the Quaternary Period and forms a major part of the Middle Ganga Plain (MGP). In the west the MGP enters in Uttar Pradesh and in the east it merges with the Lower Ganga Plain/ Bengal Delta Plain in West Bengal and Bangladesh. The Precambrian Highlands in the south forms the southern border whereas in the north it merges with the Tarai belt, geographically located in Nepal along the foothills of lesser Himalayas. The Quaternary deposits in MGP having their provenance both in the Himalayas and the Peninsular craton, are conveniently divided into the Newer Alluvium (Holocene) and the Older Alluvium (Pleistocene) (Acharya 2005).

The Older Alluvium bordering the Precambrian Highlands in south is assigned Upper Pleistocene to Lower Holocene age by Chakraborty and Chattopadhyay (2001) whereas it occurs as discontinuous patches in the North Ganga Plain. The Younger (Newer) Alluvium is of Middle to Upper Holocene age and at many places the transition is marked with an erosional unconformity. Recent deposits are confined in the flood plains of the Ganga River and as wide patches in North Ganga Plain, in the flood-prone tract of the Ghaghra, Kosi, Gandak, Burhi Gandak and Baghmati Rivers which are perennial and carry substantial sediment load from the lesser and the upper Himalayas.

The thickness of the Quaternary sediments increases from a couple of meters along the fringe areas in south to > 700 m in the axial part of MGP and increases further towards north. Drilling by CGWB confirms the thickness of Quaternary sediments as > 450 m at Begusarai. The deposits are of fluvio-lacustrine origin, are made up of multi-cyclic sand, clay, sandy clay, in several fining upward sequence. The Older Alluvial deposits are yellowish to yellowish-brown in colour in contrast to gray coloured Holocene sediments.


The major rivers in the Ganga Plain in Bihar state exhibit narrow river valleys which are incised on to upland terraces (T2) developed on the Older Alluvium (Acharya 2005). The Newer Alluvial deposits along the river channels particularly the Ganga are incised as narrow terraces (T1). The T1 surface generally lies above the active flood plain (T0), which is subject to flooding, overtopping of banks during monsoon. The T1 surface is referred as older flood plain.

Arsenic in groundwater exceeding 0.05 mg/L is confined in the Newer Alluvial deposits along the Course of the River Ganga. The Pleistocene deposits exposed both in the South and the North Ganga Plains are low in groundwater arsenic load and nowhere the concentration has been reported to exceed 0.05 mg/L. A study in Sone-Ganga interfluve region covering Bhojpur district, maximum concentration in the Older Alluvium has been found as 0.007 mg/L (Saha et al 2009). About 59% (n=17) of the samples from Older Alluvium reported BDL. In the contiguous Newer Alluvial belt 61% and 41% of the samples (n=60) has exceeded 0.01 and 0.05 mg/L.

Earlier workers (Acharya 2005) opined that potential risk areas are confined to the active flood plains in the Newer Alluvium. Study by CGWB in parts of Bhojpur district reveals that arsenic exceeding 0.05 mg/L is affecting both the active and the older flood plains of the river Ganga. The pattern of arsenic distribution bears a sympathetic relationship with the Quaternary geomorphic and stratigraphic developments. Several sedimentary and stratigraphic facies have been identified and relation between arsenic groundwater contamination and shallow alluvial stratigraphy has been elaborated. The areas in and around the abandoned/cut-off palaeochannels of Ganga are the arsenic hotspots, as has been observed in Bhojpur and Buxar districts. The cutoff palaeo-channels in the Older Flood Plain are filled and possesses a stratigraphic facies comprising flood plain/lacustrine (channel deep) mud/clay deposits rich in organic carbon (Facies 1, Fig.2) and are sympathetic to arsenic contamination. However, some of them still exist as curvilinear depressions, which hold water seasonally. Most of those in the Newer Flood Plain presently form enclosed water bodies in which sedimentation process is going on. High-arsenic groundwater has also been reported from the villages in and around these cut-off lakes. The settlements at Semaria Ojhapatti and Nargada that are within the span of cut-off palaeo-channels bear significantly high levels of groundwater arsenic. These settlements possess a stratigraphic facies comprising thick (15-18 m) flood plain mud/lacustrine deposits overlain by a reworked artificial fine sediment fill (Facies 2, Fig. 2).

Arsenic concentration shows wide spatial variation as also observed in the BDP (Bhattacharya et al 1997). In Semaria–Ojhapatti village in Bhojpur district the variation in concentration from hand pumps (depth 20-35 m) has been observed as 54 times. In the eastern part at Gosaidaspur village in Bhagalpur district, located in the active flood plain of the Ganga, the concentration in hand pumps (20-30 m) varies from <0.05 mg/L to > 1.8 mg/L within a distance of 800 m (Fig 3).


Fig-4 Arsenic concentration in groundwater reduces with depth (Saha et al., 2010). In the BDP highest concentration and greatest spatial variability occurs in a few tens of meters below the ground surface and decrease rapidly below 100 m (Ravenscroft et al 2005). In the MGP in Bihar, because of availability of potential aquifers at shallow depth and shallow water level (generally < 10 m), hand pumps, which are the life-line for rural and semiurban drinking water supply, have a depth range of 20- 40 m. Arsenic sampling for this region is constrained beyond 40 m below ground because of non availability of deeper wells. To obtain groundwater samples from deeper zones, CGWB has drilled 54 aquifer-specific piezometers within 300 m bgl. Analyses of water samples from these piezometers indicate significant reduction in concentration beyond 50 m. The aquifers below 80 – 100 m bgl are contamination-free even considering WHO standard (1993). A depth vs arsenic concentration in Bariswan village reveals that the piezometer of 19 m depth has highest concentration (0.062 mg/L), which reduces to 0.013 mg/L at 62 m depth and further to 0.002 mg/L at 200 m below ground (Fig. 4). The dug wells (<10 m) exhibit low arsenic load ( < 0.01 mg/L).


Arsenic-contaminated groundwater is near-neutral to mildly acidic and dominated by alkaline earth (Ca2+ + Mg2+) and weak acid (HCO3-). Hydrogeochemical characteristics of Newer Alluvium and those from low-arsenic Older Alluvial deposits in Bhojpur district have been studied (Saha et al 2009). Marginally higher load of HCO3- (av. 295 mg/L) is reported from samples in the Newer Alluvium compared to that of the Older Alluvium (av. 263.8 mg/L) while SO42-+Cl- load is higher in the samples from Older Alluvium. The cation chemistry in Older Alluvium is marked by dominance of Na+ over Ca2+, whereas in Newer Alluvium equal prevalence of Ca2+ and Na+ exists (Table 2).

Fig-5 The groundwater in the contaminated belt are categorized based on Cl-, SO42- and HCO3- concentrations as normal chlorine (< 15 meq /l), normal SO42- (<6 meq /l) and 92% samples are normal HCO3- (2-7 meq /l) types (Soltan 1998). NO3- ranges between 0.1 and 13.4 mg/L. Analysis in Piper diagram (Piper 1944) indicate dominance of alkaline earth ( Ca2++Mg2+) over alkalies ( Na++ K+) and overwhelming dominance of HCO3- over Cl-+ SO42- (Fig 5). Twelve hydrochemical facies have been identified; Na-Ca- HCO3 , Na-HCO3 , Ca-Mg-HCO3, Na-Mg-Ca-HCO3, Ca-HCO3, Ca- Na-HCO3 , Mg-HCO3 , Na-Mg- HCO3, Mg-Ca-HCO3, Na-Cl-HCO3, Mg-Na-HCO3, and a facies without dominance of any cation or anion.

Most frequently observed facies is Mg-HCO3, followed by Ca-HCO3 and Ca-Na-HCO3. The Ca2+ and Mg2+ dominated facies exhibit frequent incidence of high arsenic (> 0.05 mg/L). Four facies are particularly found to be arsenic affected Ca-HCO3 (BDL- 0.620 mg/L), Mg- HCO3 (BDL- 0.227 mg/L), Ca-Mg-HCO3 (BDL-0.550 mg/L) and Mg-Ca-HCO3 (BDL-0.270 mg/L). The Older Alluvial areas are dominated by Na+ dominated facies, viz, Na-Mg-HCO3, Na-HCO3 and Na-Ca-HCO3.

Tabel-3 Hydrogeochemical evolution of groundwater in arsenic contaminated Newer Alluvium part has been elaborated by Principal Component Analysis (PCA). The analysis involved varimax rotation to achieve rotated factor matrix. The rotation was used for better interpretation by maximizing the difference between the variables (Lee et al 2001). Principal Component1 (PC1) accounts for 29.08% of the variance and is contributed mainly by EC, HCO3- and Mg2+, indicating infiltration of rainfall and seepage from surface water bodies (Table 3). High Mg2+ loading in PC1 indicate dissolution of ferromagnesian minerals and detrital dolomites. PC2 accounts for 20.01% of the variance and characterized by high positive loadings of Ca2+, As (total) and Fe (total), revealing possible same mobilization path of As and Fe. Incidentally As and Fe shows strong positive correlation (r2= 0.674)(Fig 6). Loading of HCO3- (0.364) indicates its role for releasing As and Fe in the aqueous phase.


Arsenic contaminated areas in the state lies in the upper part of high potential multi-group aquifer system. Visual analyses of drill-cut samples from 22 deep bore wells (~300 m) drilled by CGWB and 16"/64" electrical and self potential logging has helped understand the aquifer geometry. The litholog of Bharauli, an arsenic contaminated village in Bhojpur district, reveals a sequence of Quaternary fluvio-lacustrine deposits down to 250 m depth (Fig.7). At the top, a 13 m thick soil and clay sequence is followed by sandy clay, which grades to fine to medium sand up to 69 m bgl. A thick medium to coarse sand sequence underlies and continues till the appearance of light yellow colored clay and sandy clay (cumulative thickness 25 m). This clay and sandy clay layers appear to have less permeability and together have been referred as middle clay .

Fig-9 A second sequence of fine to coarse sand appears below the middle clay and continues up to 250 m below ground, with occasional gravel beds confined at two depth zones; 183-209 m bgl and 230-238 m bgl. No significant clay bed appears within the second sand sequence, except thin clay partings (~10 cm thick) appeared in fine to medium sand layers, indicating temporary low energy conditions. Various litho-units form a two-tier aquifer system separated by the middle clay. The upper aquifer ranges from 0 to 106 m bgl and lower aquifer starts at 130 m bgl. This two-tier aquifer system prevails in the inter-stream region of the Sone and the Ganga, covering Bhojpur and Buxar districts. Hydrogeologic section between karnamipur to Maner reveals spatial continuity of the two-tier aquifer system separated by 15-33 m thick clay (Fig8). Aquifer configuration, however, is different in the northern part of the river Ganga to the east of Sone-Ganga interfluve. The litholog of Madudabad in Samastipur district reveals continuance of the upper aquifer upto 120 m bgl. Clay and sandy clay predominate the lithology at depth. Aquifers of 12-15 m thickness are found embedded within the thick argillaceous deposits (Fig.9)

Groundwater in the arsenic-contaminated shallow aquifers (within 50 m bgl) remains under unconfined condition. The hydrograph network station measurements reveal shallow hydraulic head indicating effluent nature of river Ganga in this part. During the premonsoon the water level remains between 5.0 and 10.0 m bgl, except in central parts in regions adjoining Ganga-Gandak confluence and parts of Buxar and Bhagalpur districts where it remains between 2.0 and 5.0 m bgl. During the post-monsoon the level ranges from 2.0 to 5. 0 m bgl except in few parts of Buxar, Bhojpur, Samastipur, Patna, Munger and Bhagalpur districts where it remains between 5.0 and 10.0 m bgl.

In the arsenic contaminated Newer Alluvium belt in Bhojpur district a detailed study indicates water levels of shallow contaminated aquifers found to vary between 5.1- 6.32 m (av 5.31m) and 3.2 to 4.43 m (av 3.78 m) during the pre and post monsoon seasons respectively. Groundwater flows towards the Ganga River with a gradient of 6x10-4 indicating sluggish movement. The head of the low-arsenic lower aquifer remains higher than the water levels representing shallow aquifer, 4.01–6.57 m during pre-monsoon and 2.56 -4.01 m during post-monsoon seasons.

Long-duration pumping tests have been carried out in 16 exploratory wells. In three wells (Maner, Bharauli and Karnamepur) in Bhojpur district tapping the lower aquifer longduration pumping test data have been interpreted by curve-matching methods of Walton (1962) and Hantush (1955), considering aquifers as semi-confined. Transmissivity vary from 6009 to 6985 m2/day (Table 4). Hydraulic conductivity ranges between 64.88 to 82.04 m/day. Storage coefficient values (6.4x10-4 to 2.5x10-3) indicate semi-confined to confined nature of the aquifer.

Tabel-4 The water level behavior and the aquifer configuration reveal unconfined mode of groundwater occurrence in arsenic-contaminated shallow aquifer. Hydraulic conductivity of the shallow zone has been determined based on the grain-size parameters using the established equations by Lambe (1958) and Breyer (1964) for Bharauli well. In Lambe’s equation d10 is an important input whereas in Breyer’s method Uc (uniformity coefficient) plays a significant role. Porosity is the most critical input in determining K by Lamb’s method. Based on published values of porosity for different size-grades of sand (Morris and Johnson 1967; Driscoll 1986) values of 39% and 36% are considered suitable for medium to coarse sand and for very coarse sand (with occasional gravel) respectively. The hydraulic conductivity ranges between 37 and 92 m/day.


Fig-10 From the aquifer configuration it appears that the recharge paths are different for the shallow contaminated aquifers and the deep low-arsenic aquifers. The recharge mechanism has also a bearing on mobilization of arsenic in groundwater. Isotope analyses, both stable (18O/16O, 13C) and radioactive (14C, 3H) have been carried out for aquifer-specific samples from Bharauli, Semaria- Ojhapatti, Bariswan and Sinha Gram in the arsenic contaminated area of Bhojpur district (CGWB and BARC, 2009).

Tritium (3H) concentration of the shallow groundwater (generally 3.42-10.13 TU) reveals a substantial component of modern recharge and the age has been estimated as less than 40 years. Carbon-14 concentration ranges widely, between 29.97 and 164 pMC, showing a positive correlation with depth of groundwater (Fig10). The deeper low-arsenic aquifer has 14C concentration between 29.97 and 77.61 pMC. Based on 14C concentrations, the age of the groundwater from deeper low-arsenic aquifers have been worked out as ~3000 years. The older age supports less permeable nature of the middle clay, holding the deeper aquifers under semi-confined to confined condition.

Fig-11 The δ18O (‰ VSMOW) values vary from -7.69‰ to -5.52‰ whereas from shallow aquifers it remains in the range of -7.06‰ to -5.52‰. Three samples from lower aquifers exhibit a δ18O range of -7.69‰ to -7.28‰ (Fig11), with an average value of -7.53‰, indicating that they are significantly depleted in 18O than the upper aquifer. δ2H (‰ VSMOW) varies in shallow aquifer from - 46.96‰ to -36.52‰. Deeper aquifer samples represent still lower values (-47.95‰ to -43.14‰). The difference in δ18O and δ2H (‰ VSMOW) values between shallow and the deeper groundwater indicates difference in hydrostratigraphy and possibly the climatic regime under which the recharge took place. The plots of δ18O vs δ2H fall both above and below the Global Meteoric Water Line (GMWL) of Craig (1961) (Fig.11). Minor deviation from the GMWL indicates some evaporation of rainfall, prior to or during infiltration, or there might be some mixing of the infiltrating water with the pre-existing soil-moisture that has experienced several cycle of evaporation (Allison, 1982). A part of the recharge is contributed from natural surface water bodies, community tanks as well as recirculation of groundwater withdrawn for irrigation, which appears to be enriched in heavier stable isotopes due to evaporation.


Arsenic contamination in Groundwater beyond the regulatory limit of 0.05 mg/L is posing a challenge to the water supply in the state of Bihar. The contamination is affecting the shallow aquifer, within ~50 m bgl, which are the life line of hand pump based rural drinking supply.

Elevated arsenic load, are confined in the flood plain, both in the active (flood prone) and the older flood plain of the Ganga River. The Older Alluvium forming the Marginal Plain Upland Surface (Singh 2004) in South Ganga Plain and Dissected Upland Interfulve Surface in the North Ganga Plain have low arsenic load. In Bhojpur district maximum arsenic concentration in Older Alluvium has been detected as 0.007mg/L. However, localized high arsenic has also been detected in Darbhanga, Kishenganj far away from the present course of the Ganga.

Arsenic distribution is marked with wide spatial variability resulting in patchyness in distribution. No relation has been established between the concentration level of arsenic and groundwater flow direction. Depth wise there is a significant reduction in concentration beyond 40 m bgl. The aquifers at depth (> 80 m bgl), which appears to be of Pleistocene age are contamination free even considering the WHO (1993) guidelines.

The drill-cut samples from the arsenic contaminated Holocene deposits are gray coloured and rich in organic matter, indicating reducing environment. Deposition of organic matter is facilitated by numerous cut-offs, abandoned channels and back-swamps which hold water for a significant part of the post-monsoon period. Grain size distribution of sands reveals a fluvio-lacustrine depositional environment during the Holocene period. Chemically the groundwater is mildly acidic and fresh with TDS generally remaining within 800 mg/L. The anionic chemistry is dominated by HCO3- while the cationic chemistry is marked by dominance of Ca2+ and Mg2+. Groundwater with high arsenic load is marked with Ca-HCO3, Mg-HCO3 and Ca-Mg-HCO3 facies. PCA of the major chemical constituents in Bhojpur district reveals high loadings of As (total), Ca2+ and Fe (total), and significant HCO3- loadings in PC2. Release of As and Fe in aqueous phase is related to same mobilization path, which is supported by positive correlation between them.

The arsenic contaminated Newer Alluvium belt exhibits flat topography with shallow water levels (<10 m bgl) and sluggish groundwater movement. Long-term water level analyses of Hydrograph Network Stations do not indicate any significant lowering of water level. The main source of recharge of shallow aquifer is rainfall infiltration besides percolation from surface water bodies. Tritium concentration also reveals young age of shallow groundwater (<40 years). The abundance of organic carbon in the shallow alluvial stratigraphy allows a part of it to be carried downward with the percolating groundwater. The organic carbon stimulates microbial respiration and triggers reductive dissolution of As and Fe in solid phase. This process also generates HCO3- and so produce the relationship between AS and HCO3- in shallow groundwater The deeper aquifers hold old water (> 3000 years) as indicated by 14C activity and appear to have its recharge from far off places. Presence of sub-regional scale clay bed in Sone-Ganga interfluve region in Bhojpur and Buxar districts inhibits direct vertical percolation of arsenic contaminated water from shallow level to the deeper aquifer system beyond 120 m bgl. In other affected areas of Middle Ganga Plain, the arsenic free deeper aquifers are of good potential, where T remains > 5000 m2/day. Groundwater in these aquifers remains under semi-confined to confined condition and can be developed for community scale water supply through deep tube wells.


he spatial variation of arsenic concentration in groundwater, both horizontal and longitudinal, warrants detailed investigation. A clear understanding of the mobilization path of arsenic in groundwater in the Ganga Plain is yet to be established. The reasons for lesser degree of contamination in the flood plains of the other major rivers draining the Middle Ganga Plain, like Kosi and Gandak Rivers, as compared to the Ganga stem flood plain, also needs to be established. Sub-basin scale sustainable yield of the low-arsenic deeper aquifers for community-scale water supply is to be worked out. The recharge mechanisms in the contaminated shallow aquifers and low-arsenic deeper aquifers needs elucidation assimilating isotopic techniques both in the North and the South Ganga Plain. Clinical manifestations of prolonged arsenic exposure through drinking sources are also reportedly not as severe in the Middle Ganga Plain, as has been documented in West Bengal and Bangladesh. Studies throwing light on the clinical aspects are also desired along with ascertaining the possibility of arsenic fixation in the food chain.


The authors take this opportunity to express their sincere thanks to Chairman, Member (SAM) and Member (SML) CGWB for their kind support and inspiration. Thanks are due to Dr P.C.Chandra (Regional Director) for his constructive guidance and valuable support in carrying out the work and his fruitful suggestions in preparing the manuscript. Sincere thanks are extended to R.S.Singh (Ex-Regional Director) for taking keen interest in arsenic studies and being a constant source of inspiration during the initial phases of arsenic investigations. Thanks are extended to K.K.Singh, A.K.Agrawal, T.B.N.Singh, R.R.Shukla, M. Sonkusare, V.S. Verma, S.Das, Sreehari SMS, S.Upadhyay, S.S.Ganguly, S.K.Singh and K.G.Bhartariya for their support during the arsenic study.


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• Walton, W.C. (1962), Selected analytical methods for well and aquifer evaluation. Illionis State Water Survey, Bull. Vol.49 pp-81.

Dipankar Saha, S. N. Dwivedi, Sudarsan Sahu - Central Ground Water Board, MER, Patna

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