Troubled waters

In Bihar, it is common to see children and cattle bathe together in the same water. Drinking water has become contaminated and sanitation facilities remain negligible, reports Bula Devi

Rural Bihar is paying a high price for the lack of clean water and proper sanitation
Rural Bihar is paying a high price for the lack of clean water and proper sanitation. Photo: WFS

Access to safe drinking water is an important millennium development goal, but in Bihar, which is ironically enough blessed with innumerable rivers, it is proving to be a huge concern.

The evidence from the ground is compelling. Take Shankar Yadav, 44, of Tilathi village in Saharsa district. He may have enough land to feed his family but is still very troubled. "Earlier, our water used to be clean. The root-cause of our present health problems is impure water," he says. The water in Yadavís well has traces of iron. As if that is not bad enough, the swamp adjoining his home is a breeding ground for flies and mosquitoes, and diseases like kala azar and malaria are common.

The groundwater in this region straddling the Ganga is the main source of drinking water. But it has become contaminated with arsenic, fluoride and iron as shallow and middle-level aquifers get overexploited. Anindo Banerjee, head of Praxis, a Patna-based NGO, estimates that women in certain pockets have to walk at least 5 km to find safe drinking water. "If they donít do this, they will have to depend on stagnant water in nearby ponds," says Banerjee.

If one travels along the embankment of the Kosi, where about one million people live, and which is spread across about 384 villages, it is common to see children and cattle bathe in the same water, even as women wash their clothes and utensils nearby. But this water is unsafe. According to Ashwini Choube, State Public Health Engineering Department Minister, out of 38 districts in Bihar, 13 are affected by arsenic contamination, 12 by fluoride and 10 by iron.

The World Heath Organisationís permissible limits allow for 10 ppb (parts per billion) arsenic in drinking water supplies. But in 2008-09, Dr Ashok Ghosh, professor-in-charge of the Environment and Water Management Department at Patnaís A.N. College, found in a study he conducted that there was 1,861 ppb arsenic in Panday tola, Bhojpur district, while in Khagaria and Supaul districts, drinking water contained 300 ppb and 250 ppb, respectively. Says Dr Ghosh: "In groundwater 87 per cent of the arsenic is in trivalent form, which is very harmful."

The three common sources of arsenic poisoning are drinking water, water used for irrigation which enters the human body through food, and the burning of cow dung cakes. Dr Ghosh makes the connections: "The fodder given to cows has been irrigated by arsenic contaminated water; so the cow releases arsenic-laced dung. When cow dung cakes are burnt, arsenic is released as arsine gas."

It is the women who are largely affected by this. Not only do they drink contaminated water, they spend most of their time in unventilated kitchens, inhaling the smoke from the cow dung cakes used as cooking fuel. Infants imbibe the toxins with their motherís milk.

"The basic sanitation problem is because of cultural attitudes. But it is also a poverty issue," says Dinesh Mishra, an MPA activist. Open defecation is a big concern in Bihar, with dirty surroundings becoming the breeding ground for the sandfly, which causes kala azar. It is the poorest who are the worst hit. Dr Ashok Kumar, a private practitioner in Khagaria, estimates that 90 per cent of his kala azar patients are Dalits, who are among the lowest of the low castes in Bihar.

Clearly, rural Bihar is paying a high price for the lack of clean water and proper sanitation. But there are some innovative responses to the crisis. The MPA, for instance, has spearheaded two initiatives. They began by convincing local communities to undertake rainwater harvesting. Recalls Prasad: "At first activists were met by a lot of resistance because of a local belief that they could get goitre if they drink rainwater. The question of proper storage also arose. We learnt from the local villagers in Supaul district about the matka filter. We further developed it by using bamboo and waterproof cement to protect it from secondary

The second initiative involved better sanitation. This, too, was a challenge because people resisted the idea of toilets. Says Mishra: "They just could not adjust to confining themselves to a 3 ft x 3ft cell even for a while!" But things are slowly changing. Some villages now have the ecological sanitation system known as the faidemand shauchalay (beneficial toilets)."

The state government has introduced a slew of measures to improve access to drinking water. Some 200,000 hand pumps have been made functional across the state and an additional 100,000 will be dug between 2012 and 2015. There are plans to set up 200 to 500 new mini water plants in areas with 1,000 to 1,500 inhabitants. The state government has also promised to make access to drinking water and sanitation a fundamental right.

There is also a growing understanding about the importance of sanitation. The government has coined slogans emphasising general health and social dignity, especially that of women. One of these slogans goes like this ó ghar ghar mein ho shauchalay ka nirmaan, tabhi hoga laali betiya ka kanyadaan (a toilet in the house is the right wedding gift for oneís dear daughter). ó WFS