Poor water quality, a serious threat

Last Updated 13 April 2010, 17:30 IST

A recent United Nations report says that more than three million people in the world die of water-related diseases due to contaminated water, which includes 1.2 million children. In India, over one lakh people die of water-borne diseases annually. It is reported that 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.

Rajasthan, Gujarat and Karnataka are the worst affected. About 65 million people have been suffering from fluorosis, a crippling disease due to high amount of fluoride and five million are suffering from arsenicosis in West Bengal due to high amount of arsenic.

According to an earlier UN agency report, since the world’s population has grown to over six billion, many countries have been facing water crisis. A majority of the poor in these countries do not have access to safe drinking water. Around 80 per cent of diseases in the developing countries are attributed to poor quality of water supply.

The World Health Organisation reported that of the 10 million annual deaths in India, 7.8 lakh are due to lack of basic health care amenities like effective sewage system, safe drinking water supply, elementary sanitary facilities and hygienic conditions. Almost 90 per cent of diarrhoea cases are due to contaminated water.

Getting worse

The UN reported that some 2.6 billion people in the world, mostly in Africa and Asia, do not have access to basic sanitation, which increases the risk of diarrhoeal and other diseases fatal to children. Also, rapid urbanisation, growth of unauthorised colonies, lack of amenities and medical facilities and disposal of garbage have worsened the situation.

Water-borne diseases like cholera, gastroenteritis, diarrhoea have been erupting every year during summer and rainy seasons in India due to poor quality of drinking water supply and sanitation. A California think tank reported that as many as 76 million children could die worldwide from water-borne diseases by 2020 if adequate safeguards are not taken.

Children among the poor are most vulnerable to water-borne infections as they are largely undernourished and their immune systems are underdeveloped. Trans-Yamuna and resettlement colonies of Delhi are largely afflicted every year from these diseases due to shortage of safe drinking water.

A World Resources Report says: about 70 per cent of India’s water supply, is seriously polluted with sewage effluents. The UN reported that India’s water quality is poor. It ranks 120th among the 122 nations in terms of quality of water available to its citizens.
The World Development Report says: Delhi’s water supply is among the worst in many big cities of the developing world. The Central Pollution Control Board has found that the tap water in Delhi contains carcinogenic substances and the toxic quotient is five times higher than the WHO standards. It is reported that of the 1.42 million villages in India, 1,96,813 villages are affected by chemical contamination of water.

The water supply from rivers is invariably contaminated to a greater extent by bacteria, viruses and parasites. These are found in large numbers in domestic sewage, effluent from slaughter houses and animal processing plants, all of which contaminate water catchment areas.

Over 18,000 million litres of untreated sewage water enters the Yamuna river daily, passing through Delhi, and thereby polluting it with toxic chemicals and high level of coliform and other bacteria. The high level of coliform bacteria increases the incidence of water-borne diseases. These microbes grow in the intestines of humans and animals, where they multiply and thereby cause disease.

These water-borne pathogens survive under low temperature, low salinity and low intensity of light. Warm temperature is favourable for their rapid growth. Also, industrial effluents and municipal waste in Haryana have been polluting the western Yamuna canal water, and thereby adversely affecting the drinking water supply in Delhi. A large number of fish deaths in recent past in Punjab — caused by industrial effluents — created panic in certain areas of Punjab and Rajasthan because the drinking water supply became unsafe.

It is reported that 10 per cent of diseases worldwide could be avoided by improving the water supply, sanitation, hygiene and management of water resources. Today, water resources are depleting due to increasing consumption because of rising population and improved living standards in urban areas.

The government has committed to provide drinking water to all habitations by 2012 under the millennium development goals and therefore has a major responsibility to provide safe drinking water, particularly in urban slums and rural areas.

(Published 13 April 2010, 17:30 IST)

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