Sadly, in the 21st century, about 600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress and about 1,00,000 people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water when technology has advanced with the help of ever-expanding knowledge.
More than three million people in the world die of water-related diseases due to contaminated water each year, including 1.2 million children according to the report by the United Nations.
These water borne diseases are mainly attributed to limited access to safe drinking water, quality sanitation facilities, unhealthy hygiene practices and improper water management practices. India is mainly facing severe water crisis on account of increasing human population, food production, and industrialization.
The government has failed to provide safe drinking water to all households despite launching a program “Har Ghar Jal” in 2017 by Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. In India, at present safe (as assumed) piped drinking water reaches only 70 percent of urban and 19 percent of rural households. According to a NITI Aayog report, 40% of the India's population will not have access to clean drinking water by 2030 though Prime Minister strongly advocated to provide piped water to every rural home by 2024.
What’s worse is - the ‘Global Burden of Disease’ study estimated that 1.8 million global deaths were caused by water pollution in 2015. These adverse health impacts continue to occur despite improvements in household access to safe water.
Improvement in providing safe drinking water that has been focused is exaggerated due to poor indicators for monitoring. According to report India stands on the 120th position out of 122 countries in water quality index. The probable reason is that the government either does not bother to understand the actual adverse impact of contaminated water on human well beings because the voiceless poor people are practically suffering or does not have proper information about its impact on human health.
The major drawback in understanding the severity of water borne diseases is the failure in epidemiological surveillance to record actual cases of waterborne diseases and the status of drinking water quality supplied to people.
The groundwater in one-third of India’s 600 districts is not fit for drinking as the concentration of fluoride, iron, salinity and arsenic exceeds the tolerance levels. About 65 million people have been suffering from fluorosis, a crippling disease due to a high amount of fluoride, and five million are suffering from arsenicosis in West Bengal due to high amount of arsenic in ground water. Fluoride contamination of fresh water also affects large parts of rural India. More than 25 million people across 17 states have to drink water with fluoride concentrations higher than the maximum permissible limit of 1.5 parts per million, During the visit to the villages in Birbhum district of West Bengal, many villagers were found with the deformities, both physical and dental, caused by fluoride.
Arsenic in West Bengal was described as one of the largest known "Mass Poisoning in human history". In West Bengal at present, fewer people are drinking arsenic-contaminated water than before due to growing awareness and access to arsenic safe water.
But in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Assam, villagers are still drinking contaminated water as this problem is largely unrecognized.
We observed contaminant such as chloride in Daltanganj, nitrate in Sindri, fluoride in Talcher, chromium in Sukinda and so on in the ground water above the tolerance level. All these instances occurred due to direct recharge of these contaminants to the aquifer. Simultaneously release of metals from the soil/rock in contact with contaminated recharge water was noticed. A World Resources Report says- about 70 per cent of India’s water supply is seriously polluted with sewage effluents.
Water-borne diseases like cholera, gastroenteritis and diarrhoea erupt every year during summer and rainy seasons in India due to poor quality drinking water and sanitation.
The Ganges provide water to over 500 million Indians - contamination of just one source of water could affect millions of lives in one go. Water contamination often occurs due to inadequate and incompetent management of resources as well as inflow of sewage into the source. Just 30% of waste water from India's cities is treated before disposal.
The rest flows into rivers, lakes, and groundwater. If this problem is not controlled, a lack of safe drinking water will take a greater human toll than war and terrorism.
During my visit to many rural areas where piped water supply is available, drinking water is, often, contaminated with suspended solids during the summer and monsoon. As water supply is not continuous, they are bound to collect turbid water after filtering through cloth. On analyzing this water, it was observed that water was contaminated with total coliform at the level of about 35 MPN/100 ml with total suspended solids of 30 mg/L.
The actual quality of water varies widely over the time and space depending upon the contamination of water sources, design of distribution system and their maintenance and storage condition. The quality of water supplied to the people cannot be ensured because quality assurance checks are lacking in cities and rural areas.
The entire population, where piped water is available are practically dependent on this common water supply despite availability of other protected sources such as public tube well and deep well which are also fit for drinking purpose.
In these rural areas, the upper and middle income families with individual connection, drinking water are being utilized for all domestic uses including washing, cleaning, gardening and flushing of the toilet.
The eighty per cent of this safe water are ultimately drained out as waste flow to the nearby road from many households and pollute the ponds in the village as there is no holding tanks in their own premises to store this waste water.
The people from poor families are deprived of safe water due to intermittent supply.
In addition to this, government did not provide piped water supply to the small remote villages mainly inhabited by the poor and mostly illiterate people due to paucity of water resources.
On availability of safe water, many people have discontinued to use water of the pond and rivulet, a traditional practice, at least for bathing. Ponds are becoming redundant and practice of conserving rivulet water has been discontinued.
Thereby water quality is being deteriorated and infested with blue green algae particularly during dry season as it has of no use to many people, though poor people are still dependent on these ponds for bathing and washing.
Importance of these ponds for its ecological service is practically ignored by the administrators in the government, villagers and politicians.
Also, land use and land cover change due to construction of houses and shops in rural areas in unplanned way has not only stooped inflow of rainwater to these ponds but also prevented recharging of groundwater.
The problem of recharging is further aggravated on account of concretizing of all the inside village roads without making any provision for recharging of ground water in scientific manner.
Though development of road is the symbol of development but not at the cost of jeopardizing natural water cycle particularly at the time when our governments both in the centre and states irrespective of their political affiliations focus their concern on rain water harvesting.
Governments launch some attractive programs for storage of rain water but with little success.
The governments did not make the people aware of the importance of the water and consequences of misuse/overexploitation of water.
The major flaws are that governments always get the water project works done by the contractors who only looks into profit and loss. If all these water projects are operated and maintained by the community who are already aware about the importance of the water, it will be sustainable, economical and beneficial- of course political intervention with vested interest must be controlled.
It cannot be denied that water situation has been already worsened and poor people are badly suffering on account of non availability of safe drinking water. Now there is emergent need to conserve the water.
For that, water conservation and preservation awareness program must be started on war footing involving all the stockholders. This program does not need to pump out huge money to the contractors, it requires scientific approach and long term policy to involve the community to conserve and preserve the rain water as was done in Rajasthan by Mr Rajendra Singh who is known as “Waterman of India”.
The writer is Former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board and is from Kolkata and can be reached at 919432370163 & 916290099509 or [email protected]