The Tribune - Spectrum


, October 6, 2002

Safe drinking water and sanitation must for health
B.K. Sharma

WATER is not merely essential for human existence but is the very essence of life. Most civilisations have grown along the rivers of the world like the Ganga, Indus, Nile and Rhine. Our planet has life because of the presence of water and air and any scientific explanation of the origin of life would be traced to the sea where possibly the first living molecule would have originated. Two-third of the surface of our globe is covered with water. It is a very interesting coincidence that 2/3rd of our body also consists of water. Apparently there is enough water around when you take the mighty rivers and the oceans into consideration but it will be a gross mistake to take the supply of water for human use for granted. A recent United Nations document on this issue warns of a very bleak picture in the foreseeable future.

According to this report, by the year 2032 over half the world population will be faced with water shortage resulting in serious health consequences. The report goes on to point out the serious consequences of exploiting of natural resources, population growth, global warming and unlimited urbanisation. The report points out that 1.1 billion people in developing countries still have no access to safe drinking water and nearly 2.4 billion (more than 1/3rd of the world population) lack adequate sanitation facilities. This combination of unsafe water and poor sanitation is responsible for 4 billion cases of diarrhoea with 2.2 billion deaths every year. Intestinal parasitic infections, trachoma and schistsoma infection devastate a large population in developing countries. Nearly half of the world’s rivers are drying up and more and more population is becoming dependent of ground water supply which is also decreasing. The worst-effected area will be West Asia where over 90 per cent of the people will face water shortage.

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The scenario in our country is not very promising. The state of our rivers be it the Ganga, the Yamuna or the Sutlej is deplorable. According to the World Development Report published in 1993, we have the dubious distinction of having the highest percentage of population, nearly 80 per cent without adequate sanitation and about 25 per cent without safe drinking water. Even other developing countries are better than us with regard to sanitation. China has already achieved the target of providing safe drinking water to 80 per cent of its population and sanitation to about 70 per cent. This is not to deny that efforts have been made to improve the situation in our five year plans from time to time.

A water supply and sanitation programme was initiated in 1954 for the supply of adequate safe drinking water and sanitation for the entire urban and rural population. In 1972 an accelerated rural water supply programme was started and the decade of 80s was declared as the drinking water supply and sanitation decade. A minimum of 40 litres of safe drinking water per capita per day was stipulated for the entire population. The Union Cabinet has recently raised this limit to 55 litres a day and efforts are being made to provide this to the entire urban and rural population. We are nowhere near providing sanitation to the population. The report of the State Council for Science and Technology published in 1995 paints a very discouraging picture of the situation in Punjab. The amount of industrial discharge and urban sewerage which enters the Sutlej after the Gobind Sagar at Nangal makes this river seem like a sewerage drain. The river supports over 50 aquatic species in the Nangal Dam, but soon after the effluent from various industrial units and Budha Nala of Ludhiana enters the river, it is unable to support any life at all. The picture of rivers Beas and Ravi is a little better. Most of the towns in Punjab are dependent on ground water which is also a cause of concern. In many districts the ground water recharging is less than 50 per cent and, therefore, the ground water level is gradually going down. Toxic waste slowly permeates the upper level of the ground water and is full of pollutants like heavy metals, minerals, nitrogen compounds, detergents, bleaching agents and dyes. These compounds will affect the population directly through the water and indirectly by affecting the vegetation. Presence of fluoride above accepted level in some districts of Punjab is another hazard to superficial ground water.

Hazards of unsafe water

Unclean water is a major cause of concern for the public health authorities and is known to carry water-borne diseases. Water-borne infections manifest themselves in the summer and rainy seasons as diarrhoea and dysentery. These include various virus infection like hepatitis, bacterial infection like typhoid, dysentery, Cholera and the common bacteria E.coli, protozoal infection like amoebiasis and giardia and worms like round worms hazards from the toxic effluent from industries become evident over a longer period of time and might even be responsible for the spurt in cardiovascular diseases like coronary artery diseases and hypertension. Their role in causing cancer has always been a cause for concern.

I have no doubt that both the central and the state governments and the public health departments are conscious of this problem and are trying to cope with the situation. The problem is rooted in the twin factors of a growing population and urbanisation. The municipalities and the gram panchayats must be made responsible for providing safe drinking water and at least minimum sanitation. A visit to any slum area in Chandigarh is an eye-opener. It is difficult to ignore the sanitation problem in these colonies, legal or illegal. Their presence in towns like Chandigarh, Delhi or Mumbai is a reality and the fact is that they serve vital needs of these towns. To meet their minimal needs of health and sanitation is the responsibility of the society they serve. Is the Human Rights Commission listening?

United Nations Report on World Environments

  • According to a recent United Nations report, over half of the world population will face water shortage by the next 30 years, having severe health consequences.

  • Over 1 billion people in the world, mostly in developing countries, have no access to safe drinking water and nearly one-third of the world population still lacks adequate sanitation facilities.

  • The report calls for urgent action for preserving the environment, stopping over-exploitation of natural resources and tackling the population problem.

Home This feature was published on July 14, 2002