A population of 1.47 crore [14.7 million] across almost 17,000 areas in the country faces a major health hazard due to arsenic contaminated drinking water, according to the latest data of the ministry of drinking water and sanitation.
Arsenic is present in drinking water above the permissible limits in 16,889 areas while 12,029 areas have high levels of fluoride [flouride spelling corrected] and 2384 habitations have heavy metal contamination. Iron is also present in 23613 areas and around 14069 areas have high levels of salinity. Nitrates have also been found in 1809 areas.
These areas are part of the list of 70,793 places (habitations) where drinking water is contaminated — either with heavy metals, iron, nitrates or even high degree of salinity, cited by the government last month in a written reply to a question on water contamination in Parliament.
According to the national rural drinking water programme’s (NRDWP), the number of habitations with contaminated water is 69,267 with a population of 4.56 crore. Out of this, 16,609 areas have high arsenic in the water. The ministry’s data reveals that 1.47 crore (14.7 million) people are at risk across 16,889 areas.
The ministry said West Bengal leads in arsenic contamination with 9756 areas affected while Assam is second with 4416 areas. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh also have arsenic affected areas.
Rajasthan leads in fluoride [flouride spelling corrected] contamination with 5939 affected areas while West Bengal has 1293 and Bihar has 898 such areas. Heavy metals are present in water in 2378 areas.
While the total number of habitations with contaminated water has come down in the last five years, the figures are rising again. The number of habitations affected had come down from 9,504 in 2009 to 1800 in 2015 before they began rising again from 2016 when it touched 14,143.
Officials in the ministry, however, said the numbers are based on what the states report. “It also depends on how good or bad the testing has been that year or whether the numbers are reliable,’’ said an official who did not want to be named.
In its reply in Parliament, the government said the national water quality sub-mission was launched on March 22, 2017 to provide safe drinking water to arsenic/fluoride affected habitations within four years. But it was subject to availability of funds.
The data submitted by the states on number of arsenic, fluoride, iron, salinity, nitrate and heavy metal affected habitations (more than the prescribed limit found in drinking water sources) is incorporated into the ministry’s Integrated Management Information System (IMIS).
Arsenic is one of the most dangerous contaminants of drinking water. Long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking water can cause cancer in the skin, lungs, bladder and kidney. Overexposure to fluoride [flouride spelling corrected] causes fluorosis resulting in discolouration of teeth and skeletal deformities. It is also known to cause the damage to neurological system.
“Prolonged exposure to Iron contamination is not life threatening. It impacts your digestive system. When families are exposed to this kind of contamination, it hits their pockets,’’ said Eklavya Prasad of Megh Pyne Abhyian, a campaign and functional network working on arsenic and iron contamination in flood prone areas in North Bihar.
While rural drinking water supply is a state subject, the ministry provides technical and financial assistance through centrally sponsored scheme national rural drinking water programme. Officials in the ministry of drinking water and sanitation, however, said funds provided to the states under NRDWP can be utilized for coverage and tackling water quality problems with priority to fluoride and arsenic affected habitations.
“The Ministry has informed all the states to commission surface water based piped supply schemes in all the affected habitations as a long term sustainable solution,” said the official mentioned earlier.