Fluoride Action Network

Halfway into government project, arsenic in water still a big worry

Source: epaper.live.Mint.com (exclusive partner, Wall Street Journal) | September 10th, 2007 | By Sangeeta Singh and Jacob Koshy
Location: India

New Delhi: The government has made almost no headway in its ambitious plan to treat groundwater for arsenic, fluoride and salinity under its flagship programme, Bharat ­Nirman.

“With more than 210,000 habitations remaining to be covered, there is no way we can meet the target by 2009. And there are chances that this project may go beyond 2011,” said a senior official at the Planning Commission, India’s apex policy planning organization. The official did not wish to be identified.

While the government’s target was to provide potable water free from these chemicals to 217,000 habitations in the country over a four-year period beginning 2005, it has managed to do this only in 3.4%, or around 7,300 of the habitations until April this year, according to a review done by the Planning Commission. The number is less than one-third of the target of 25,000 habitations set for the first two years (2005-07) of Bharat Nirman.

With an initial estimated cost of Rs1.76 trillion, Bharat Nirman planned to develop rural infrastructure, covering areas such as water, irrigation, roads, housing, electrification and telecom connectivity.

The Planning Commission official said the main reason for the slow progress of the project was that each state government wants anywhere between Rs10,000 crore and Rs30,000 crore to tackle the problems of chemicals in water. India has a rural water supply network of more than 5.2 million hand pumps and more than 0.3 million piped water supply systems across 0.6 million villages that cover 1.4 million habitations. The government has increased its spend on drinking water project by 44.44% to Rs6,500 crore this year.

Scientists say implementing measures such as rainwater harvesting would be more practical.

Another government official involved with the monitoring of Bharat Nirman projects defended the government’s initiative and said the Planning Commission figures may not account for potable water obtained from an alternative source. The official, who did not wish to be identified, did not provide any data to support this.

“Often it may be much cheaper to get an alternative source provided by piping (water) from a distance rather than treating for quality specifically. And incidentally, these are state programmes to which Centre extends funding. States are relatively slow on taking up quality-related interventions not merely because of cost, but treatment plants also need to be maintained constantly,” the official said.

Scientists said treating water contaminated with high levels of arsenic—a chemical known to cause cancer—was complex and it would be more practical to implement methods such as rainwater harvesting to develop alternate sources of potable ­water.

According to C.K. Jain, a senior hydrologist at the National Institute of Hydrology, Guwahati, consumption of water with above-permissible amounts of arsenic, even if it is in minute quantities, for more than 10 years can be fatal. “Detecting the arsenic, as well as treating water using methods such as reverse osmosis and electric dialysis are extremely expensive and not permanent,” said Jain. “The best way is to collect rainwater during monsoon months, treat it, which is far cheaper, and use it during non-monsoon months,” he added.

Though not as dangerous as arsenic, excess fluoride, responsible for a range of non-fatal but extremely painful conditions rainging from skeletal deformities to dental infirmities, is also a matter of concern, with more than 17 states reporting fluoride content in water above permissible limits.

“Fluoride in excess amounts is a problem, but there are well known methods (to treat such water), the most popular being the Nalgonda treatment,” Gangadhar Panigrahi, dental surgeon at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, said.

The Nalgonda treatment, popular in South India, and named after a district in Andhra Pradesh, involves filtering fluorinated water with aluminium sulphate and lime, and is one of the cheapest and most effective ways to control fluoride content in water, according to experts.