Water Pollution: How, Why, What
Urgent action needed to cleanse India’s lakes and rivers
When academician Ismail Serageldin warned in 1995 that the wars of this century would be fought over water, he may as well have referred to India. Water pollution has had, and continues to have, a devastating effect on the health of humans, animals and ultimately the economy of India.
Contamination of many of India’s water bodies has made water unfit for drinking, bathing or use in farming. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, raw sewage and industrial waste being pumped into the country’s 445 rivers has made more than half of them unfit for drinking. Water from at least a quarter of these rivers cannot be used even for bathing. Rivers in western India are under the severest stress, as per this report.
The increasing levels of water pollution are also the canary in the mine—singing about the impending water crisis that will confront the country. Fresh water reserves have fallen from 6,042 cubic metres per capita in 1947 to 1,845 cubic metres in 2007. If the trend continues, the levels will drop to less than 1,000 cubic metres—a grim figure that foretells the future water wars.
Impact on Health
The impact of using polluted water on the health of the people is equally severe: according to a WHO report (2007), India loses about 0.4 million people every year due to the results of water pollution—lack of hygiene, sanitation and water shortage. Indians suffer 60 years of ill-health per 1,000 people, compared to 34 years in China. The socio-economic costs cannot be understated : 1.5 million children under 5 die every year due to water-borne diseases.
Groundwater reserves across large areas in India are contaminated with arsenic and fluoride; 150 districts across the country have a serious fluorosis problem, leading to long-term and irreversible damage of their residents’ health. Arsenic being a known carcinogenic and poison endangers the health of up to 70 million people in the Gangetic deltas of West Bengal, Bihar and Bangladesh.
Water pollution affects animals too. Biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) in water plunges in contaminated water, leading to large-scale destruction of marine ecosystems and aquatic life. The National Water Quality Monitoring Network that tracks and biomonitors water bodies across the country reports an increasing trend of BOD across most rivers in India—another pointer to the critical levels of contamination in the water bodies.
But all is not lost. The solutions are many, but require a concentrated effort. Foremost among the remedies is to stop massive dumping of human sewage into water bodies. The sewage treatment plants currently in operation are far too inadequate, often antiquated and poorly maintained. A sustained initiative is needed to maintain the current plants and to add new ones. Similarly, policy-level push and ground-level implementation of regulations for industrial effluents and agricultural run-offs are necessary.
Other initiatives include maintaining minimum flows of water to sustain river systems. It is also imperative to create awareness among the people to reduce the burden of religious and social practices, such as burning human bodies at river banks, abandoning human and animal carcasses in rivers, mass bathing, and immersing offerings in the rivers.