Arsenic occurrence in Malawi groundwater

M.O Rivett, H.L Robinson, L.M Wild, J Melville, L McGrath, P Phiri, J Flink, GJ Wanangwa, P Mleta, S.S.P MacLeod, A.V.M Miller, R.M Kalin

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Despite an estimated 90,000 groundwater points, mostly hand-pumped boreholes, being used for drinking-water supply in Malawi, evaluation of groundwater arsenic has been limited. Here we review the literature and collate archive data on groundwater arsenic occurrence in Malawi; add to these data, by surveying occurrence in handpumped boreholes in susceptible aquifers; and, conclude on risks to water supply. Published literature is sparse with two of the three studies reporting arsenic data in passing, with concentrations below detection limits. The third study of 25 alluvial aquifer boreholes found arsenic mostly at 1-10 μg/l concentration, but with four sites above the World Health Organisation (WHO) 10 μg/l drinking-water guideline, up to 15 μg/l; the study also discerned hydrochemical controls. Archive data from non-governmental organisation (NGO) borehole testing (two datasets) exhibited below detection results. Our surveys in 2014-18 of hand-pumped supplies in alluvial and bedrock aquifers tested 310 groundwater sites (78% alluvial, 22% bedrock) and found below test-kit detection (<10 μg/l) arsenic throughout, except possible traces at two boreholes containing geothermal-groundwater contributions. Our subsequent survey of 15 geothermal groundwater boreholes/springs found four sites with arsenic detected at 4-12 μg/l concentration. These sites displayed the highesttemperatures, supporting increased arsenic being related to a geothermal groundwater influence. Our 919 sample dataset overall indicates arsenic in Malawian groundwater appears low, and well within Malawi’s drinking-water standard of 50 μg/l (MS733:2005). Still, however, troublesome concentrations above the WHO drinking-water guideline occur. Continued research is needed to confirm that human-health risks are low; including, increased monitoring of the great many hand-pumped supplies, and assessing hydro-biogeochemical controls on the higher arsenic concentrations found.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1807-1816
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Applied Sciences & Environmental Management
Issue number11
Early online date30 Nov 2018
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 30 Nov 2018


  • arsenic
  • groundwater quality
  • Malawi
  • drinking water


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