Shimla, the capital city of Himachal Pradesh, suffered a major outbreak of jaundice last month. According to media reports, about 1,100 people were infected with the disease, of which seven lost their lives. Investigations revealed that release of sewage water into the primary drinking water source of the city was the reason for the outbreak.
What happened in Shimla cannot be seen in isolation. Across the country, our water sources are being rendered unsafe and unfit for consumption due to rampant pollution. Almost 70 per cent of all sources of surface water and an increasing percentage of groundwater resources are contaminated by biological, toxic, organic and inorganic pollutants as mentioned in a study by Jain CK and Ali I, in ‘Water Research’, A Journal of the International Water Association (IWA). Our children are staring at a ‘muddled’ future.
The primary source of such contamination seems to be the sewage we produce. According to Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in its ‘Status of Water Quality in India Report-2012’, India’s major cities together generate about 38,000 million litres of sewage every day. However, the treatment plants installed by the country have the capacity to treat a meagre 11,000 million litres per day. The remaining untreated or partially-treated sewage water gets released into our lakes, rivers or marshlands, thus polluting almost all of our drinking water resources, both surface and underground.
Sewage is a major, but not the only cause of water pollution. Due to improper methods of disposal and management, the solid waste we throw out of our homes along with industrial and agricultural waste turns our water sourcesinto a toxic cocktail. In fact, not a single major city in India has a scientific and safe method of disposing solid waste, though the rules to do so were framed in the year 2000. A study conducted by the global environment think-tank, ‘World Resources Institute’, sums up the trend. Only 59 of the 632 districts tested by the institute had groundwater that could be considered ‘safe enough’ to drink going by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS).
Water pollution isn’t confined to open water bodies. Even packaged drinking water, which we pay for and consider as one of the safest options, contains pollutants. A study, conducted by Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), the results of which were published in January last year, revealed the presence of high levels of bromate, a possible cancer-causing substance, in bottled water sold in Mumbai.
Water, water everywhere, not a drop to drink!
The immediate effects of consumption of polluted water are diseases like cholera, jaundice, typhoid and other acute diarrhoeal diseases. “There is a direct impact of water and sanitation on health. The National Sample Survey data indicates there is a direct correlation between the quality of water and the incidence of water-borne diseases. In areas where the water is clean and sanitation is implemented well, there have been a notably lower number of such cases,” says Dr Brijesh C Purohit, Professor at Madras School of Economics.
ParentCircle analysed the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare data published by Press Information Bureau on prevalence of waterborne diseases in the country between 2011 and 2013. According to the data, while India managed to marginally minimise the spread of cholera, cases of jaundice and typhoid saw an increase during this period. Cases of typhoid increased from over ten lakh affected in 2011 to over fifteen lakh affected in 2013. Experts say the numbers are directly related to the worsening quality of drinking water. Exposure to public places with poor sanitation facilities can also cause this.
Vector-borne diseases like dengue, malaria and chikungunya are a direct consequence of poor sanitation and water stagnation. The number of dengue cases reported in India has seen a rapid increase since 2010. According to data published by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, dengue cases have shot up from 28,292 in 2010 to a staggering 97,740 in 2015.
Children seem to be more vulnerable to these disease outbreaks due to lower immunity and higher exposure to public places like schools, parks and playgrounds. “Next to respiratory infections, gastrointestinal diseases are the most common problems that we, as doctors, see in children today. Most of these infections are propagated through water. We see a high incidence of diarrhoea and vomiting in children, followed by Hepatitis A and typhoid,” says Chennai-based paediatrician, Dr Meena Thyagarajan.
Lise Grande, former United Nations Resident Coordinator for India, in her foreword to a 2013 UNICEF report titled, ‘Water in India – Situation and Prospects’, stated: “Improved management of water resources will have a major impact on India's social and productive progress. Nowhere is this more important than in the area of child health. Studies show that forty-five per cent of India's children are stunted and 600,000 children under five die each year, largely because of inadequate water supply and poor sanitation.” Another report titled, ‘Unsafe water stunting growth of Indian children’ in Down to Earth, an Indian Science and Environment fortnightly, states, “One-third of all deaths of children under five years of age in India are due to diarrhoea and pneumonia. Many more children who survive have weakened immune system and become underweight and malnourished, which has a severe impact on their learning ability throughout their lives.
”Now, doesn’t this give us enough reasons to ensure that the water we drink is safe? Don’t we owe it to our children?
Solvents and the ‘solution’
“To some extent, boiling water for 15-30 minutes can make it safe to drink. However, with water purifiers and RO units gaining popularity, the practice of boiling water is on the decline,” says Dr Meena Thyagarajan. “What assurance do we have of the standard of safety provided by these purifiers? Contamination happens at so many levels. There are new pollutants and risks at every stage,” she adds.Purification of drinking water is like fixing the problem at the very last stage. It is crucial to stop pollution right at its source. “Prevention is a multipronged issue. Industrial waste needs to be checked, sewage water needs to be treated, and garbage disposal needs to be regulated,” says Dr Brijesh Purohit.
“The most fundamental step towards solving this public health issue is awareness. Communities need to be educated. Empowered communities will then be able to engage civic agencies when there is a fall in the quality of water,” adds Dr Purohit.
Tips: Ensuring our drinking water is safe
Boiling Water: Kills most microbes and disease-causing bacteria.
Water Purifiers: Removes most chemicals and toxins. Carbon-based filters remove pesticide content. Reverse Osmosis removes heavy metals like lead.
Purifying Agents: Oxidants like Potassium Permanganate can be used to purify water in storage systems like overhead tanks.
Plumbing Maintenance: Old pipes and fixtures can cause contamination of water. Regular checks and maintenance can prevent this.
Herbal Purifiers: Boiling water with certain herbs such as coriander can help control contamination.
A parched future
Incremental levels of pollution have made this precious resource scarce. The World Resource Institute estimates that the scenario could get really worse in the coming years if measures are not taken. More than half of India’s total area is facing high to extreme high water stress which, in turn, will affect more than 600 million people, notes the report.
With shortage comes demand, and with demand comes the price tag. Domestic water that we buy today is considerably under-priced according to estimates by CPCB. This leads to a considerable waste of water and inadequate revenues for operation and maintenance of infrastructure. But, this is not sustainable and will not last long. With the private water sector in India poised for robust growth, our children could end up paying more for water than for petrol in the years to come. So, it is time that we, as parents, ensure that our children’s future is not parched because we failed to plug the leak.
The most fundamental step towards solving this public health issue is awareness. Communities need to be educated.
Major pollutants and their impacts on health
Lead: Old pipes and plumbing systems contain lead, too much of which can damage the kidneys, nervous and reproductive systems. Lead is especially harmful to the developing brains of foetuses and young children, and to pregnant women. High levels of lead in blood can cause irreversible consequences in children.
Arsenic: Consumption of drinking water laden with arsenic, over long periods, can cause cancer in organs like the bladder, kidney, lungs and skin.
Mercury: Organic mercury acts very similar to the elemental form. It affects the nervous system and can cause birth defects. High levels of mercury can even lead to loss of the foetus.
Fluoride: Fluoride in the water is essential for the protection of the teeth and bones. But, higher levels of it can cause thyroid disease, low intelligence, dementia and diabetes.
Sewage: Untreated or inadequately treated municipal sewage is a major source of groundwater and surface water pollution. Sewage carries microbial pathogens that cause many diseases.
Pesticides: Run-off from farms, backyards, and golf courses contain pesticides such as DDT which, in turn, contaminate water. Pesticides affect the endocrine system and cause damage to the reproductive organs.
Chlorinated Solvents: Metal and plastic effluents contaminate groundwater. Long-term side effects may include chronic skin problems, and/or damage to the nervous system, kidneys or liver. Some chlorinated solvents are also known to cause cancer.