Guwahati, Tuesday, July 25, 2017
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Safe drinking water a myth
Prakriti Kr Chakroborty

 Safe drinking water is the most important thing for all human beings. Availability of pure drinking water is an indicator to ascertain the level of human health risk in the area they are living in.

At present, in Guwahati city, 10 piped water supply systems of various capacities are being operated and maintained by different organisations. Each of these piped water supply systems has its own treatment unit for purifying water tapped from the Brahmaputra. Four piped water supply systems, owned and managed by Railways, Guwahati Refinery and Defence agencies, have been providing water to their own establishments and employees.

The other six piped water supply systems - three owned and managed by the Guwahati Municipal Corporation, two by the Public Health Engineering and one by the Guwahati Metropolitan Drinking Water and Sewerage Board - are providing drinking water to about 30 per cent citizens of the city. However, the consumers have been facing inconvenience in their day-to-day life due to extremely unsatisfactory service provided through these piped water supply systems.

It's a basic consumer rights to know how safe his or her drinking water is from health point of view. In the USA, in compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), under the Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) Rule, every year by July 1, each of the water supply providers has to publish ‘Annual Drinking Water Consumer Confidence Report’ furnishing information related to water quality they are providing to the consumers and other relevant information like performance, etc.

Detection of arsenic more than 0.1mg/litre (acceptable limit is .01mg/litre) and lead to the extent of 0.3mg/litre (acceptable limit is .05mg/litre) in treated water of all the six piped water supply systems by a study conducted by experts of the Assam Engineering College (AEC) in mid-March, 2017, exposed how badly the safety of drinking water is being compromised, putting consumers to serious health risks.

Consumption of drinking water having arsenic beyond permissible limit may result acute health problems like nausea, vomiting, neurological problem, etc. Long- term exposure to arsenic may cause skin lesion, risk of skin, bladder, lung cancer etc. Lead beyond the permissible limit in drinking water is a serious health threat to children. Effect of lead poisoning can stunt children growth and damage their nervous system.

Purpose of a water treatment plant is to treat raw water to make it safe for drinking. Various parameters of raw water quality can broadly be classified under physical, chemical and bacteriological categories. In the existing water treatment plants for six piped water supply systems, provisions of treating arsenic and lead are not being maintained because it's not techno-economically feasible. So, arsenic and lead content of raw water tapped from the Brahmaputra cannot be removed.

However, to ensure safe drinking water to entire population of Guwahati, at present work for installation of three mega piped water supply systems assisted by the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) are going on.

JNNURM-assisted piped water supply system is proposed to be set up near Pandu Ghat and other two piped water supply systems are proposed to be set up at Kharguli near Uzanbazar Ghat. Raw water sources for the three piped water supply systems will be the Brahmaputra river. However, no provision for treating toxic element like arsenic and lead is being kept in the proposed water treatment plants under these schemes.

A Water Quality Index is a means by which water quality data is summarised for reporting to the public in a consistent manner. It tells us, in simple terms, what the quality of drinking water is from a drinking water supply.

To assess suitability as a source of raw water, the experts from the Assam Engineering College extracted samples in March at different spots along the 11-km-stretch from Uzanbazar Ghat to Pandu Ghat of the Brahmaputra.

The Water Quality Index found out by the experts indicated that the raw water of the Brahmaputra is not suitable as a source of raw water.

I have been trying to bring this issue to the notice of the Assam Pollution Control Board, the Public Health Engineering, the Guwahati Metropolitan Drinking Water and Sewerage Board and other organisations and individuals concerned, but in vain.

Guidelines for drinking water quality produced by the World Health Organisation (WHO) have been globally used and accepted as guide for consistently ensuring safe water for human consumption. The guidelines strongly recommend for preventing contamination of water from the catchment of the source to the point of consumption. The Uniform Drinking Water Quality Monitoring Protocol circulated by the Government of India also emphasised the need of adopting Water Safety Plan (WSP) in Indian context.

In spite of specific guidance and directives, none of the organisations - currently responsible for managing water supplies within Guwahati city - has adopted Water Safety Plan. But the irony is that the Guwahati Metropolitan Drinking Water and Sewerage Board in its website indicated that it works to provide continuous and uninterrupted hygienic piped drinking water.

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