August 23, 2017   
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Water Contamination


By Dr Oishee Mukherjee

Water contamination has been a long-standing problem in the country but successive governments have done precious little to tackle the problem through what is required–affirmative action. Thus, the problem has aggravated in the past few years and in some districts, the effects on human health have been quite disastrous. Lakhs of people were affected in different parts of the country due to intake of contaminated water.

In such a situation, the government set a deadline of 2021 to make clean drinking water available to 28,000 habitations, heavily affected with arsenic and fluoride contaminants in water. It has been found that water contamination from arsenic and fluoride is increasingly being linked to cancer and even hypertension, diabetes and reproductive disorders. There is obviously need for concern and the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has launched the ‘National Water Quality Sub-Mission’ with an outlay of Rs 25,000 crores.

States such as West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Manipur and Chhattisgarh are reported to be most affected by arsenic contamination of groundwater above the permissible level, that is, above the WHO’s guideline of 0.01mg/litre (10 gram per litre). While Bengal is worst hit due to rampant arsenic contamination present in 8-9 districts,   Rajasthan suffers from presence of fluoride in drinking water, both of which cause serious health hazards. Some districts of Uttar Pradesh along the banks of the Ganges as also many villages in Bihar, Jharkhand and parts of Assam fact serious arsenic problems.

Arsenic is an element widely distributed in earth’s crust and in groundwater in many countries, including Bangladesh and Pakistan. Studies have revealed that long-term intake of arsenic contaminated water leads to arsenicosis with cancer of skin, bladder, kidney or lung or diseases of skin — colour changes and hard patches on palms and soles — or blood vessels of legs and feet.

The Sub-Mission has come at the right time as it is expected to fulfill the objective to ensure that every house gets clean and potable water. As the problem is more acute in the rural areas, where the earning capacity of majority of the population is limited, these people would be saved if water related diseases are controlled.

Meanwhile, the drinking water ministry has asked 18 drought prone States to utilise 25 per cent of the Central Budget available with them to mitigate drinking water crisis. While 13 States were identified last year as drought prone, the ministry has assessed another five States as the ones facing drinking water scarcity this year.

However, keeping in view the fact that the government, being a signatory to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG), it is committed to provide tap water on a sustained basis in every household by 2030. According to ministry officials, Rs 23,000 crore of Central funds would be required annually till the target is achieved. Keeping in view the dimension of the problem but also the fund crunch, the required resources would have to be made available in the coming years.

To understand the dimension of the problem, one may mention here a recent survey carried out by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in 11 locations of the 294 km. stretch between Gangotri and Haridwar where around 50,000 people take bath every day. It examined temperature, dissolved oxygen (DO), biological oxygen demand (BOD) and coliform. Clinical tests of water samples showed high levels of BOD, coliform and other toxic materials around Haridwar district. According to CPCB norms, BOD levels should be less than 3 mg. per litre for bathing purposes but the levels were found to go up to 6.4 mg. per litre in the river.

High coliform levels, specially in the major ghats such as Har-ki-Pauri, between 90 MPN (most probable number) per100 ml. to 1600 MPN per 100 ml. further established the severity of water pollution in the area. As per CPCB, the coliform levels should be much less at 500 MPN/100 ml. or less for bathing purposes. Moreover, the acceptable limit for DO is 5 mg. per litre but in Haridwar it goes up to 10.6 mg. per litre.

Thus, it is quite evident that given the contamination of river water, people have been resorting to pumping groundwater for personal consumption and farming. Consequently the ground water table has fallen to alarming levels. Added to this, the harmful fertilizers used for growing crops have contaminated ground water such that in many places it is not fit for drinking.

Thus, at this juncture, keeping in view of the impending water shortage, the question of conservation is vital as also generation of awareness in this matter. The superstition still prevalent in many areas of throwing away old water of the day has no scientific sanction and needs to be changed. This has to taken up by the panchayats and civil society organisations and specially the women folk have to be urged to discard such superstitious practices.

According to reports, the total usable water available in the country is 1123 bcm while the total water consumption in 2006 was 829 bcm and projected to rise to 1093 bcm by 2020. Thus, providing pollution free, potable water is a big challenge more so to prevent communicable diseases, which has been increasing at a rapid pace. The Centre jointly with the States has to take up this challenge. It may be mentioned here that, as per a UN report, an estimated 100,000 Indians die from water-related diseases each year and experts have predicted that over 50 per cent of the country is likely to face extreme water stress by the year 2030 or even earlier.

The government, on the instructions of the apex court, has already been taking lot of measures to clean the rivers and this should bear fruit in the coming years. Simultaneously, habits such as defecating in the open, throwing garbage in the roads and rivers, ponds and other water outlets etc have to change. Overhaul and cleanse the system, must be top agenda. —INFA

(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)