Clean up our rivers of bacteria

Clean up our rivers of bacteria

A joint India-United Kingdom study,  Scoping Report on Antimicrobial Resistance in India, throws light on the alarming levels of anti-microbial resistance (AMR) and anti-bacterial resistance (ABR) in the country, with rivers teeming with such bacteria. The report draws attention to the findings of other studies that were conducted on the country's major rivers, including the Cauvery, Ganga and Yamuna. A 2015 study on River Cauvery found that 100% of E. coli (bacteria) isolates here were resistant to third-generation cephalosporins. All the bugs isolated from 283 river water samples that researchers collected in the 2011-2012 period were found to be resistant to  Ampicillin and Cefotaxime and 75% were resistant to Ciprofloxacin.  Apart from rivers, other water sources, too, are rich in bacteria with high levels of resistance to a broad spectrum of antibiotics. A study in the Hyderabad area examined four tap water samples, one bore-hole water sample and 23 environmental water samples. It found that among 23 environmental water samples, 22 had Enterobacteriaceae and other gram-negative bacteria, 100% of them were  Extended-spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL) producers.

Water is essential for the body and sustains all life. But drinking water in India has become hazardous, given how dirty and toxic our water sources are. Untreated sewage and chemical effluents from the industry pour into waterbodies daily.  Human and animal carcases are thrown into the rivers. Not surprisingly then, our rivers have become toxic cocktails. Not only do we drink water from these rivers and lakes, millions of people even bathe in these waterbodies. Contrary to the widely-held belief that a dip in a 'holy river' is cleansing, this is deadly activity. Consuming harmful bacteria or exposing our skin to it threatens our very survival as many of these bacteria are resistant to treatment.

Successive governments have undertaken cleaning of the Ganga and billions of rupees have been sunk in such programmes. None have succeeded. This failure is partly because the approach is not scientific. Many are of the view that the Ganga has the capacity to cleanse itself and hence doesn't need outside intervention. Indeed, all rivers have the capacity to rejuvenate themselves. But they have been dirtied to such an extent that the rivers have lost their natural self-rejuvenating capacity. It is this capacity that must be restored. It is also a matter of concern that all efforts are focused on the Ganga alone. India must do more to keep all its rivers clean. This is important for our environment as well as public health. A large number of diseases can be tackled by cleaning our waterbodies. It is an urgent national task.

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