How safe is our drinking water?

Recently, a Cardiff University-led team found new strains of resistant bacteria, including species which cause cholera and dysentery, in Delhi’s drinking water supply. The findings are the first evidence of the environmental spread of these antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which had previously only been found in hospitals. The incident calls for an exploration of India’s stand on providing safe and sustainable drinking water to its villages and towns.

The main sources of drinking water are tap water in urban areas, and bore wells and tubewells in rural areas. While tap water comes from Municipality-managed water supplies, borewell depends on groundwater. However, studies (like ICMR study of water supply and CSE study of water contamination) have shown that both these sources are contaminated with heavy metals, fertilizer runoff, industrial discharge, sewage (from leaks and improper maintenance of pipes) and other chemical and biological pollutants. It is reported that groundwater in one-third of India’s districts is not fit for drinking as the concentration of fluoride, iron, salinity and arsenic exceeds the tolerance levels. The infelicitous reality is that in an era of rising health consciousness, our drinking water purity is declining. Some comprehensive studies show that there are over 2,100 toxins in our drinking water, including chlorine, lead, fluoride, arsenic and mercury, among others.

In recognition of this large problem, the Government of India has initiated several programs to improve drinking water. The National Agenda for Governance of the Government of India stipulated that safe drinking water should be provided to all habitations on a sustainable basis. The Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation launched the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) in April 2009 to provide water in rural areas through water budgeting and preparation of village water security plans. The Eleventh Plan identifies the key issues facing the water sector. It focuses on deteriorating source sustainability resulting from over-extraction of groundwater, water quality problems including arsenic, fluoride and bacteriological contamination, and poor operation and maintenance of water delivery.

Despite these various measures and schemes, India continues to lag behind in providing access to clean drinking water and sanitation. Over one lakh people die annually of water-borne diseases like cholera, gastroenteritis and diarrhoea. About 65 million people suffer from fluorosis, and five million from arsenicosis. The World Health Organisation reported that of the 10 million annual deaths in India, 780,000 are due to the lack of basic health care amenities like effective sewage systems, safe drinking water supply, elementary sanitary facilities and hygienic conditions.

Unfortunately, in tackling the problem of drinking water supply, the government has focused more on extending the coverage of drinking water supply rather than on improving water quality and water delivery systems. For instance, the guidelines for drinking water norms indicate that one hand pump must be allocated for every 250 people, but make no mention of standards for water quality.

In recent times, large private corporations like Tata group have begun to recognize this problem, and developed initiatives like the Tata Swach, which aims to deliver safe and affordable drinking water across urban and rural India. The vision for the Swach is to reduce the incidence of waterborne diseases by bringing affordable and safe drinking water to millions. The Swach is an excellent example of how private business innovations can also significantly contribute to solving social challenges. However, the problem remains so great that there is a need to accelerate the effort and develop new modes of collaboration between different sectors, in order to tackle the problem at a systemic level.

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