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Droughts linked to bone disease in India

Droughts have an obvious immediate impact on both rural and urban areas. However, the rise in use of contaminated drinking water resulting from lack of available clean water sources is giving rise to diseases such as fluorosis.


A dried-up reservoir in northern Karnataka. Depleting water supplies are among the signs of India’s climate crisis.

According to one monitoring platform, approximately 42 percent of the total land in India is prone to episodes of drought. This covers states home to 500 million Indians – almost forty percent of the total population.

The short term effects of drought are plain to see. Crops fail, leading to economic loss among India’s farming communities — a community already blighted by depression and high suicide rates due to economic hardships, exacerbated by climate change. The failure of crops leads to higher food prices, or outright inavailability to the local region, affecting diets in the area and leading to malnutrition in a nation where 68 percent of child deaths are due to undernourishment.

A lack of drinking water can lead to individuals having no choice but to drink from contaminated sources. This can lead to a number of infectious diseases such as cholera, particularly where open defecation is commonly practiced. However, contamination of groundwater sources is amplified during a drought, and can have far more long term impacts.

In total, 75 percent of drinking water in India is contaminated. Health Issues India has previously made note of this, documenting the high levels of uranium present in India’s water supply in many regions. Other such contaminants are also present. One such contaminant is fluoride, a mineral that can accumulate in the body and lead to skeletal deformation.

Droughts exacerbate the issue. By reducing the amount of available water, while the amount of fluoride present remains consistent, the concentration of fluoride in any amount of water drank from that source will be substantially higher, allowing the mineral to accumulate in the body.

“When fluoride is retained in the body, 99 percent is in the bones,” says Dr Raja Reddy, a neurologist who has operated on hundreds of the Nalgonda district’s fluorosis patients. This leads to ossification of the bones — a process in which the bones thicken and ligaments calcify. This eventually leads to the spinal cord being compressed, leading to paralysis.

In drought-prone areas such as Nalgonda, up to 69 percent of the residents are estimated to be affected to some extent by fluorosis. Ossification is progressive and irreversible, meaning that those affected from childhood may be paralysed entirely through their teenage years and later life. 

As climate change and a growing population place an ever greater burden on India’s water sources, more must be done to ensure safe drinking water be made available throughout the country. Droughts are becoming ever more common, and the impact on health will amplify if nothing is done.

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