A glimmer of light at the end of a dark CKDU tunnel

"It is perhaps no irony that a chemical principle enunciated by Professor Hofmeister over a hundred years ago while at the University of Prague, could well be a pointer to solving the conundrum of CKDU in Sri Lanka, although Hofmeister wrote in archaic German, not intelligible to most modern linguists.The very soil that we stand on and the regolith underneath is the result of weathering of hard rock over several millennia. We ourselves would witness only a millimetre or two of such weathering over our own life time"

For the benefit of the uninitiated, CKDU stands for chronic kidney disease of unknown aetiology. As most laymen (including the writer of this article) would head for the nearest dictionary for the meaning of `unknown aetiology’, the gravity of the affliction ravaging certain parts of the NCP and the NWP and isolated pockets of the country as well, would dawn on them with a sickening realization that even the highest doyens of science and medicine would be fumbling to treat a malady without knowing what exactly causes it. Predictably and distressingly, that is the prevalent situation and the cohorts of affliction, pain and despair are swelling in numbers, with fresh eruptions in farmer communities that eke out an existence in the affected areas, whilst the disease is crossing new boundaries.

In response to the looming national disaster the Sri Lankan medical and scientific community has closed ranks, with widespread interaction between them at a multitude of discussions, seminars and workshops in an almost panic stricken hunt for the elusive "nigger in the woodpile", sadly without much success or unanimity on a course of action. In all fairness it must be recorded that the orderly elimination of suspected substances, chemicals etc and indicators such as pH values, and electrical resistivity etc. and various other phenomena is an important component of a corrective exercise, in that the field under the microscope would be cleared for alternative root causes to be identified.

Meanwhile the predictable carpet baggers are out there, touting expensive and maintenance intensive membrane filtration systems, and the like which spit out the very same pollutants back into the environment, and stalking Government Institutions, Provincial administrative bodies, CSR donors, NGO’s and other charitable Institutions and individuals, trading heartlessly on human misery.

Fortunately, inspired perception by Professor Dharmawardene, an expatriate Sri Lankan resident in Canada, was to posit that the phenomena being experienced, could well be caused by a multiplicity of ions in the drinking water, christened as high `ionicity’ ; what with the plethora of weedicides, pesticides and fertilizers now being applied with gay abandon, all of which adding to the anion and cation count, in addition to those already present from previous applications and these elements and compounds already present in the weathered regolith, some of which going into solution in the reductive, oxygen starved, fissured rock below the regolith.

Almost in tandem, this perspicacity was shared by our own, inimitable, Dr. Panabokke who having drunk deep from the Pierian spring immortalized by Omar Khayyam, is now perhaps the repository of the largest spectrum of Sri Lankan hydrogeological knowledge.

Under the patronage of intellectual giants such as these, rationality of thinking is beginning to bear on the challenges at hand. For instance careful attention is being paid to the delicate balance of proportionality of ions between Ca, Na and perhaps Mg with Fluoride in drinking water and the dangers posed by the alteration of this balance as enunciated in the Hofmeister series with the resultant denaturing of proteins and proteinuria in the urine, (often a precursor of kidney failure). High `ionicity’ would be a cocktail of ions and thus could upset the delicate balance of proportionality referred to by Hofmeister.

Dr Manthritilleke of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) has taken up cudgels in partnership with the Atomic Energy Authority and have proved by isotope analysis that `labile’ or free flowing bodies of water in the regolith exhibit lower ionicity and salinity, while confined aquifers with little or no drainage persist with high ionicity even with the progress of the monsoon rains. Such observations highlight the importance of adequate drainage of aquifers from which drinking water is extracted. Even more importantly they highlight the need to monitor the poorly drained aquifers even by going to the extent of drilling down to divine their location and if possible artificially arrange connectivity to freely drained aquifers.

A recent patent filed by the writer of this article has established the feasibility of creating such connectivity at a minimal cost. The patented techniquewould also create the possibility of excavating COLLECTOR WELLS with horizontal feeder channels, for less than the cost of a conventional agro well while doubling the extractable quantum of water without excessive draw-down.

A rapid, small diameter drilling rig is hence under development for quick and inexpensive sampling of underground water within the confines of the regolith. This sampling technique would identify suitable well drained aquifers while badly drained or confined aquifers with high electrical resistivity and salinity which could either be rejected or the patented technique used to connect them to superior well-drained aquifers. Thus an identified target area could be mapped for quality of aquifer and a superior collector agro well constructed which would exploit the regolith below the targeted area to maximum effect and deliver safe drinking water in increased quantities which could be utilized for irrigation as well as drinking water.

The fact that areas endemic for CKDU, are also areas where water hardness and dental fluorosis is common, may not be a coincidence, and should be a pointer to the Hofmeister series effect kicking in with high `ionicity’ present.

Also the affected areas are those populated by poor farmers who were deserving recipients of financial assistance in the form of well meaning subsidies granted by the ADA to construct agro wells for income generation with irrigated cash crops. Literally thousands of such wells were constructed with little or no consideration for well site location and some of them have been abandoned due to poor water yield and quality. However, many of them are used to draw drinking water even when water levels have dropped to very low levels, beyond the danger threshold of high `ionicity’. Yet again water from some wells presently used for irrigation may be tolerated by some cash crops but not by human kidneys. A monitoring exercise is being carried out on possibly all the wells in the affected areas. Hopefully monitoring of ground water would be carried out prior to excavation of new or alternative wells. A device now being developed by a team assembled by the author would certainly contribute to the desperately needed monitoring process.

It is hoped that everyone concerned over this tragic imbroglio will feel that the collective research effort has found a promising focus that will hopefully guide investigators to alleviate and dispel this scourge from our otherwise much blessed island.

`and thus it would come to pass that the glimmer of light would wax into brilliance and shine on the true sons of Lanka on whom, the compassionate one, the divine and the multiple deities had deigned to heap the burden of malaise and suffering, in time to make them whole and elevate them to the heights of their true worth and tower over the decadence around them’.

Harin Chandraratna,

M.I.Mech.E, C.Eng

E-mail : harin@sairt.com

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