In India, potable water quality impairment is astoundingly diverse and appalling. Fluoride levels, above permissible limits, are reported from 19 states, salinity from 15, iron from 21 while nitrate from 12 states. Among these, arsenic and fluoride have severe health concerns.

Globally, India ranks high among nations for fluorosis and arsenicosis cases/ deaths. Salinity is a cumulative expression of all dissolved chemical species. Nitrate can be harmful to infants as it causes a typical blood disorder, blue baby synd­rome, in which oxygen carrying capacity of the haemoglobin drops alarmingly.

In the sphere of extreme climatic aberrations, availability of clean water has emerged as a prime concern to the international authorities (WHO–Unicef). Special emphasis, in this regard, is placed upon bolstering rural water supply services (RWSS). Clean, sustainable, potable water is also linked to safe sanitation, still an appalling scar on humanity, especially through vast areas of rural India.

To keep a tab on rural potable water quality impairment, the Water Quality Monitoring and Surveillance Program­me (WQM&SP) was launched in 2006, by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MoDWS). It strove to empower rural communities by: (a) building awareness through Information, Education and Communication (IEC) to address ownership of systems, health hazards due to poor potable water quality, hygiene, sanitary survey etc; (b) training five grassroot workers in each Gram Panchayat (GP); (c) training two people at state, four at district, and five at block level; and d) providing field testing kit (FTK) to GPs.

Since its inception, over 4 lakh FTKs have been distributed, alongside about 1180 lakh bacteriological vials; over 28 lakh people have been trained; numerous chemical laboratories have been established. Presently, the MoDWS is also setting up an International Centre for Drinking Water Quality in Kolkata, with specific focus on arsenic and fluoride contamination. Genuine progressive advance towards innovation and rural development, indeed. Yet, sadly, results still appear far from expectations.
Lab-test results, under WQM&SP, reveal water contamination for about 13% rural habitations in the 2015-16 period. But technically, this would be quite an understatement, as a vast fraction (>55%) of rural habitations remained untested even for a single source. Consid­ering the habitations actually tested – at least one water source per habitation – about 35% habitations appear contaminated. Apparently, only 9% rural habitations across the nation were fortunate to have all their water sources lab-tested.

Among habitations tested, Kerala top­ped the list with about 99% habitations found contaminated, for at least one water source. For Kerala, the unequivocal champion of the nation’s literacy drive, it seems a tad befuddling. Other leaders are the NER states of Nagaland and Tri­pura with over 85% households in grip of contamination. In West Bengal (72%), Assam (67%), Rajasthan (62%), Karnataka (58%), Telangana (55%) and Andhra Pradesh (53%), over 50% habitations tes­ted positive for contamination, for at least one of their respective water sources.
Presently, there are 12 states where ov­er 50% habitations have been tested for water quality in at least one source, with Gujarat (92% habitations) leading the tally. On the other hand, in UP, Uttarakhand and Nagaland, only about 5% habitations appear fortunate enough to have at least one source tested. Overall, in 16 states, over 50% rural habitations lacked water testing (lab-based) during 2015-16 period, which gravely accentuates human health risks. Globally, India has always been a top runner for cases of arsenicosis (only after Bangladesh) and fluorosis.

Challenges in potable water quality monitoring draws from several interweaving factors such as, weak regulation and enforcement of water quality standards, poor operation and management (O&M) of RWSS, weak provider accoun­tability, lack of private sector involvement, sloppy disbursement of funds, lack of intersectorial collaboration and low awareness among rural population.

A burgeoning concern in water sector in India is over reliance on groundwater, the mainstay of RWSS. Even though recent MoDWS mandates assure of nationwide piped water system soon, handpumps/tubewells still form the core of RWSS. But with expanding human settlement, rising demand, climate change and increasingly deeper drilling, groundwater contamination/salinisation events are becoming ever more common.
What’s more, when polluted groundwater is used for irrigation, it accentuates bioaccumulation potentials of toxic spe­cies in human tissues via consumption of ‘contaminated’ crops. Sadly, even tho­ugh reckoned with extreme importance globally, bioaccumulation studies are relatively sparse in India, if not completely absent in most parts of the nation.

Honestly, water quality monitoring and assessment has been an eternal benchwarmer at high-level policy meeting in India. As always, we learnt to lavish more on quantity over quality. But of what use is quantity if it’s not ‘usable’? For water, quantity-quality nexus is universal, and it is time we realised it. Nineteen states/UTs have registered multiple contaminants, whose synergistic effects on human physiology are yet to be fully comprehended.

Although, official records show lakhs of people trained and FTKs distributed, a fundamental doubt remains: are they reasonably aimed at states/ districts/ blo­cks/ villages where potable water quality is indeed an issue? How about official follow-ups on O&M of the FTKs distributed? Are FTK-results internationally publishable? Every year USGS, BGS, EPA, WHO, UNICEF offer hundreds of fellowships to study water quality impairment. But how many government fellowships in India have been recently awarded to explore links between human expansion, climate change and potable water quality?
What we probably need, is a four-way hook-up between the administration, GPs, civil societies, and the private sector. What we probably need, is for health adversities of polluted water to be advertised on prime time media slots. What we probably need, is ample resour­ces for our research communities around the country to investigate region-specific factors that influence water quality.

What we probably need, is real-time open-sourced spatial digital database of epidemiological assessments of water-borne diseases, based on which efficient monitoring schemes can be devised at the grassroot level. But before all, what we absolutely need is realisation dawning at the crest of a pyramid so a few wheels can start turning at the grassroot level.

Source: Official WQM&SP database. Data presented herein only reports lab-testing values, not that of FTK.

(The writers are assistant professors and assistant directors, Centre for Environment and Sustainable Human Development, O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana)

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