Water, the harbinger of life on this planet, is a resource that is rapidly going scarce in our country. In addition to being scarce, we also have to deal with the scary fact that around 70 percent of our water is contaminated. This has resulted in around 3,000 people dying every year in India due to contaminated water according to a report. The maximum number of deaths due to water pollution has been recorded in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa.

The quality of our water has us placed 120th in a list of 122 countries. The Niti Aayog ‘A Composite Water Management Indexreport from June 2018 states that a majority of the country, almost three-fourths of households, do not have drinking water access in their homes. Around 600 million people in India suffer because of water issues.

Says Vishwanath S., Water and Sanitation Engineer, “According to a Lancet study in 2017, water pollution caused 640,000 deaths in India, annually.”

According to IndiaSpend, diarrhea is among the top reasons for under-five mortality- killing an estimated 321 children every day in 2015, according to the World Health Organization. In 2015, deaths due to diarrhea of Indian children under five accounted for 10% (117,285) of all deaths in the age group. In addition, dehydration caused by water-borne diseases can lead to malnutrition and stunting, affecting the growth of children. In 2016, we were 114 in a list of 132 nations on stunting of children. The same report says, “Over five years to 2017, water-borne diseases–cholera, diarrhea, typhoid, and viral hepatitis–caused 10,738 deaths, latest government data show. Diarrhea remained the leading killer, causing about 60% of all deaths, according to this reply to the Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament) by Jai Prakash Nadda, Minister for Health and Family Welfare, on April 6, 2018. India loses 73 million working days due to water-borne diseases, IndiaSpend reported on June 21, 2016. Diarrhea caused 6,514 deaths, the most of water-borne diseases in India, over five years to 2017. ”

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Another report bears this out. Water Pollution in India: An Economic Appraisal by M N Murty and Surender Kumar states that “The socio-economic costs of water pollution are extremely high: 1.5 million children under 5 years die each year due to water-related diseases, 200 million person-days of work are lost each year, and the country loses about Rs 366 billion each year due to water-related diseases (Parikh 2004).”

Ironically, in India, we also do get a strong monsoon and have a number of perennial rivers as well as seasonal rivers. Agriculture is the mainstay of our economy which is irrigation and monsoon dependent.

The longest river in India, the Ganga, which feeds the Indo Gangetic basin, and is amongst the most revered rivers in India, has waste and sewage discharged into it by over 1000 industrial units on its banks. It has, unfortunately, got the tag of being one of the most polluted rivers in the world and its waters, far from being fit to consume are said to be unfit for even bathing in because there is so much faecal matter in it according to the Central Pollution Control Board. There have been ambitious plans to clean up the Ganga, but little has actually been achieved. The Brahmaputra in Assam is heavily polluted, the Yamuna is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, the Cauvery is drying up, as is the Musi, the Cooum in the south is heavily polluted too.

Says Priyanka Jamwal Ghosh, Fellow, Center for Environment and Development, ATREE, “Three areas need urgent attention. a) Water quality (WQ) monitoring framework. Our current WQ monitoring framework is incapable of reflecting the effectiveness of interventions (technical or social) to prevent water pollution. For instance, industrial and domestic effluent from treatment plants are regulated for trace metals, but the water body that receives the treated effluent is only monitored for conventional WQ parameters (BOD, COD, conductivity and Total coliform). There is a mismatch between the WQ contaminants monitored vs the contaminants that a water body receives. In the absence of regulating surface water for the pollutants it receives (trace metals + other organic compounds) there is an increased risk to human health.

At present the use of water is determined by monitoring surface water for conventional WQ parameters. Trace metals, pesticides and toxic compounds are not part of the regulatory framework. Even when CPCB monitors these contaminants (twice a year) there are no benchmark levels to compare to.

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Given that the river catchments are urbanising rapidly, it seems logical to include hazardous chemicals in the water quality criteria framework that are used for evaluating existing use of a water body. For instance, a large portion of river stretches that pass through urban spaces is monitored for conventional WQ parameters. Based on this data, most of these rivers are designated safe for irrigation use by CPCB. Given the fact that these rivers also receive industrial effluents, in the absence of regulations for trace metals and toxic compounds, any type of water use poses direct (ingestion, contact) and indirect (through food) risk to human health.

b) Enforcement of environmental protection laws

c) Quick Judicial proceedings of the court cases filed by the CPCB.”

Says Vishwanath S., “Water pollution comes broadly through domestic sewage pollution from our habitations, industrial pollution and other point and non-point sources such as for example excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides in agricultural fields or unscientific dumping of solid and bio-medical waste. Emerging contaminants such as the misuse of antibiotics which then ends up in sewage treatment plants and causes the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria called ‘super bugs’ is emerging as a major challenge. The regulatory aspect of managing pollution legally is in the hands of the state Pollution Control Boards. Unfortunately, most of them have struggled to be able to perform their duties well, thanks to lack of capacities, long delays in the judicial system, and the political economy creating vested interests. Many cities do not have sewage collection and treatment systems, industrial areas do not have Effluent Treatment Plants and the list goes on.”

There is a mismatch between the Water Quality contaminants monitored vs the contaminants that a water body receives. In the absence of regulating surface water for the pollutants it receives (trace metals + other organic compounds) there is an increased risk to human health. – Priyanka Jamwal Ghosh

Adds Priyanka Jamwal Ghosh, “There is enough regulation to prevent discharge of untreated industrial and domestic effluents into the surface water bodies. The reason why this is not leading to measurable impact/outcome is the lack of monitoring and subsequently the enforcement. The need of the hour is to ensure effective monitoring first followed by reorienting and redesigning the water quality framework for implementation. Some of the newer focus areas include the introduction of technology based solutions, for e.g a) Developing a low-cost real-time sensor to monitor the effluent quality. b) Deploy these sensors both at the effluent discharge point and the receiving water body. c) Use of citizen science and earth observation for monitoring water quality of surface water bodies d) Enhance effluent reuse by creating markets for the treated water and e) Rethink water quality regulation framework.”

One of the sources of groundwater contamination is leachate through landfills which are poorly managed in our country. These can be tackled though, feels Priyanka Jamwal Ghosh. She says,“There are two ways to address the groundwater contamination. a) By deploying engineered landfills for disposing of waste. b) Better enforcement of waste segregation policies at household levels.”

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The water crisis is a direct result of this pollution of potential sources of potable water and a lack of control over the pollution. There is also little or no awareness about rainwater harvesting in high rainfall and potential catchment areas, and the aquifers which provide most of the irrigation to our primarily agrarian economy are being rapidly used up without adequate buffer for natural replenishment.

Says Vishwanath S., “Bad water quality has both a social and economic consequence. Increased morbidity and mortality is a direct health consequence but also bad water quality means more R.O. systems in homes, which consume power and waste lots of water. Water treatment plants costs go up and have to become sophisticated.”

According to the report, Water Pollution in India: An Economic Appraisal by MN Murty and Surender Kumar, ground water contamination has “affected as many as 19 states, including Delhi. Geogenic contaminants, including salinity, iron, fluoride, and arsenic have affected groundwater in over 200 districts spread across 19 states.”

Says Vishwanath S., “Our chief regulatory agency is the state level Pollution Control Board. As governments, they need to be capacitated with human resource, laboratories, funds and above all the power of law to act quickly and stringently. For untreated sewage, our municipalities and city level water and sanitation utilities, have to be made capable of acting quickly and well. Lack of funding and pricing water correctly to recover true ecological cost of water is a problem.”

Treating waste water becomes imperative in the wake of the water crisis in terms of both scarcity and polluted water. On a smaller scale, a few housing societies in cities have put into place grey water processes to re-use waste water in toilets and for washing premises and cars. According to the report, Water Pollution in India, “Metropolitan cities treat about 52 per cent of their wastewater. Delhi and Mumbai account for about 69 per cent of the treatment capacity of metropolitan cities. This indicates that smaller towns and cities have very little wastewater treatment capacity.” These figures are purely urban with “… about 70 per cent of the effluents not treated and disposed off into the environmental media untreated.”

The awareness amongst citizens that they too are responsible for the water pollution crisis is only just beginning. Says Priyanka Jamwal Ghosh, “Citizens have different perceptions of the pollution in their water bodies. For e.g. most small rivers through urban areas cannot be distinguished from large drains due to lack of water treatment and unplanned direct disposal of waste in such rivers for e.g. Vrishabhavathy in Bangalore, Musi in Hyderabad and Mithi in Mumbai. Big rivers like Ganga and Yamuna though identified as rivers get viewed as polluted rivers though people remain aloof since they don’t depend on that for their daily water supply /needs. Moreover, the downstream flow of water ensures that there is no accumulation of such water and that the pollution is not perceived to be localized.

Lakes and ponds are viewed differently since citizens are more concerned as the water ‘stays’ locally and a polluted lake is perceived as a problem that impacts people’s health directly.

Large section of the urban middle-class population has now started demanding clean green spaces around their community. People aspire for green spaces and clean lakes, which has led to several citizen movements that are organized for cleaning and restoration of polluted lakes. Citizens are also demanding transparency and have held governments accountable for not maintaining the WQ of lakes. As a result, at present, we see lakes in Bangalore either being restored or in the process of getting restored.

Water pollution comes broadly through domestic sewage pollution from our habitations, industrial pollution and other point and non-point sources such as for example excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides in agricultural fields. – Vishwanath S

On the other hand, Vrishabhavathy river which originates within the city of Bangalore carries 600 MLD of wastewater every day. Not much attention has been given towards cleaning and reviving Vrishabhavathy river. Again the thought process here is that dirty water flows downstream and hence is not perceived as a problem.

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The consciousness can be brought in by making people aware of the direct and indirect health impacts of the contaminated river. For instance, there is enough evidence suggesting that the use of contaminated water for irrigation has led to the accumulation of trace metals in food crops. Also, the polluted river contaminates the shallow groundwater. Therefore, the thinking that contaminated water flows downstream and should not be a concern of the upstream population is flawed. What goes around comes around. Therefore, educating people about the direct and indirect impact of the polluted river of health could be one of the ways of bringing consciousness around this issue.”

It is the small steps that also count and we must be willing to implement these in our own spaces, so as to impact the larger cause positively. Says Vishwanath S. “As responsible citizens, we need to be aware of how each of our acts as consumers has an impact on the environment and on water. By helping segregate and composting our waste and recycling it we help avoid water pollution , by using soaps, detergents, shampoos and dish washers which have low or no phosphate and less of surfactants we help reduce the impact of pollution, by taking antibiotics correctly and not disposing them off in our drains we help the eco-system. Becoming responsible and water literate is a big step towards reducing water pollution. The other is to voice a demand for better regulation.”

Says Priyanka Jamwal Ghosh, “There is a direct correlation between quality of water and quality of life, especially from a health perspective. Even though we have enough water resources, poor practices, poor conservation and lack of a comprehensive water quality framework added to enforcement issues renders large part of this water unusable. I see the move of prioritising clean water as one of the ways of preventing surface and groundwater pollution. Prioritising clean water will ensure that the water sources are kept clean. This will automatically lead to better enforcement of pollution control laws and regulations both the point of discharge (effluent stream) and point of use (surface water). I see integrated water resource management playing a pivotal role in ensuring the prevention of our water sources.” And starting this awareness young is an important first step to get children aware and informed of how water bodies need to be kept clean for us to enjoy clean, potable water. To conclude, this point made by Vishwanath S. Seems most apt. He says, “There is no substitute to ‘water literacy’ and realizing the impact of our actions on water. One of the most effective ways is to take children on field visits showing them scientifically the condition of our water bodies, the causes for them and the ways to prevent such pollution and to clean up water bodies. The only solution is ‘education, education, education.”

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