Fluoride Action Network

Water water everywhere, or… …poison?

Source: The Economic Times | April 19th, 2004 | TIMES NEWS NETWORK
Location: India

NEW DELHI: On paper, almost all the 14.22 lakh habitations in rural India have access to drinking water. And in more than 94% of these habitations, each person gets 40 litres of water per day, either at home or from a common source within 1.6 km from their dwelling place. In another 6% of habitations, people get drinking water, but lot less than 40 litres per day per person.

By the end of this year, all rural habitations will be covered under the Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme – a scheme launched in 1972-73 with the objective of providing drinking water as per certain specified standards through pipes or hand pumps.

Over 35 lakh hand pumps have been installed and 1.2 lakh piped water schemes completed during the course of the programme. Most of the uncovered habitations are in Punjab and Rajasthan.

As per the Census of India, 67.5% of rural households drew water for drinking from either a tap or a handpump. But more than 22% were drawing drinking water from a well, and the balance 10% had to depend on tanks, ponds, lakes, tubewells, rivers and canals.

That’s one part of the story. Of the 14.22 lakh habitations, about 14% or 2 lakh habitations have reported that the water is affected by quality problems, including presence of high levels of arsenic, fluoride, iron and other metals as well as by salinity.

A Planning Commission-World Bank-UNICEF study released early last year, estimates that about 66m people in 17 states are at risk of fluoride poisoning, and about 14m are exposed to arsenic poisoning.

Some state governments such as West Bengal have already taken notice of the problem and are now in the process of replacing the hand pumps with piped water supply from surface sources, such as rivers and lakes. Officials monitoring the ARWSP acknowledge that very often, hand pumps are installed in villages without conducting tests to check the quality of water. Secondly, although the objective of the scheme is to ensure 40 litres per capita per day in rural areas and another 30 litres for cattle under the desert development programme, there is no survey of actual availability. With population rising at a fast rate, ensuring that water supply keeps pace is a challenge, officials admit. In many habitations, they reckon that per capita availability may have fallen below the level required to be considered as “covered”.

Not just that. In summer months, women have to walk long distances, in some parts of the country beyond 4 km, to fetch water as taps and hand pumps go dry. In fact, many international development agencies as well as Indian agencies reckon that India would become a water stressed country 20 years from now, i.e., per capita availability may fall to around 1,200-1,500 cubic metres per person a year from the current level of about 1,800 cubic metres. This is rather ironical for a country which gets about 4,000bn cubic metres of rainfall, of which 3,000 bcm is received during the four monsoon months.

The seasonality of the rains notwithstanding, many environmentalists reckon that the precipitation can more than adequately take care of the country’s water need, if projects for rainwater harvesting are established. Linking of rivers too could ease some of the current water problems, and those that could arise in the future.  For, even as development agencies sound alarm bells for the future, large parts of the country are already water stressed.

For instance, in the Sabarmati basin, the per capita annual availability of water is estimated at 298 cubic metres. Likewise, in Kutch/Saurashtra region, the per capita availability is 562 cubic metres, 599 cubic metres in Cauvery and several other river basins. In sharp contrast, in the Brahmaputra-Barak sub-basin, the per capita annual availability is 13,636 cubic metres. In Godavari, Mahanadi and Narmada river basins, the availability ranges between 1,683 cubic metres and 2,552 cubic metres.