Mobilization of arsenic and other naturally occurring contaminants in groundwater of the main ethiopian rift aquifers

Tewodros Rango, Avner Vengosh, Gary Dwyer, Gianluca Bianchini

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

102 Scopus citations


This study investigates the mechanisms of arsenic (As) and other naturally occurring contaminants (F-, U, V, B, and Mo) mobilization from Quaternary sedimentary aquifers of the Main Ethiopian Rift (MER) and their enrichment in the local groundwater. The study is based on systematic measurements of major and trace elements as well as stable oxygen and hydrogen isotopes in groundwater, coupled with geochemical and mineralogical analyses of the aquifer rocks. The Rift Valley aquifer is composed of rhyolitic volcanics and Quaternary lacustrine sediments. X-ray fluorescence (XRF) results revealed that MER rhyolites (ash, tuff, pumice and ignimbrite) and sediments contain on average 72wt. % and 65wt. % SiO2, respectively. Petrographic studies of the rhyolites indicate predominance of volcanic glass, sanidine, pyroxene, Fe-oxides and plagioclase. The As content in the lacustrine sediments (mean=6.6mg/kg) was higher than that of the rhyolites (mean: 2.5mg/kg). The lacustrine aquifers of the Ziway-Shala basin in the northern part of MER were identified as high As risk zones, where mean As concentration in groundwater was 22.4±33.5 (range of 0.60-190μg/L) and 54% of samples had As above the WHO drinking water guideline value of 10μg/L. Field As speciation measurements showed that most of the groundwater samples contain predominantly (~80%) arsenate-As(V) over arsenite-As(III) species. The As speciation together with field data of redox potential (mean Eh=+73±65mV) and dissolved-O2 (6.6±2.2mg/L) suggest that the aquifer is predominantly oxidative. Water-rock interactions, including the dissolution of volcanic glass produces groundwater with near-neutral to alkaline pH (range 6.9-8.9), predominance of Na-HCO3 ions, and high concentration of SiO2 (mean: 85.8±11.3mg/L). The groundwater data show high positive correlation of As with Na, HCO3-, U, B, V, and Mo (R2>0.5; p<0.001). Chemical modeling of the groundwater indicates that Fe-oxides and oxyhydroxides minerals were saturated in the groundwater, suggesting that the As reactivity is controlled by adsorption/desorption processes with these minerals. The data show that As and other oxyanion-forming elements such as U, B, Mo, and V had typically higher concentrations at pH>~8, reflecting the pH-dependence of their mobilization. Based on the geochemical and stable isotope variations we have established a conceptual model for the occurrence of naturally occurring contaminants in MER groundwater: 1) regional groundwater recharge from the Highland, along the Rift margins, followed by lateral flow and water-rock interactions with the aquifer rocks resulted in a gradual increase of the salinity and naturally occurring contaminants towards the center of the valley; and (2) local δ18O-rich lake water recharge into adjacent shallow aquifers, followed by additional mobilization of As and other oxyanion-forming elements from the aquifer rocks. We posit that the combined physical-chemical conditions of the aquifers such as oxidizing state, Na-HCO3 composition, and pH>~8 lead to enhanced mobilization of oxyanion-forming elements from Fe-oxides and consequently contamination of local groundwater. These geochemical conditions characterize groundwater resources along the Eastern African Rift and thus constitute a potential threat to the quality of groundwater in larger areas of Eastern Africa.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5801-5818
Number of pages18
JournalWater Research
Issue number15
StatePublished - 1 Oct 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Adsorption/desorption
  • Arsenic (and oxyanion-forming elements)
  • Fe-oxides and -oxyhydroxides
  • Main Ethiopian Rift
  • Oxidizing aquifer
  • PH

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecological Modeling
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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