ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Toxic Water

Polluted water is killing millions of already malnourished children.

Many children under five die each year in India not from life-threatening diseases but because they are poor and do not get enough to eat. Even if they did get adequate nutrition, their chances of surviving beyond five years are limited because the water they drink will kill them. And even if they survive their daily deadly dose of contaminated water, they will live half lives, debilitated by disease, stunted and weak. Despite numerous studies that repeat the statistic that one-third of all deaths of children under five in India are due to diarrhoea and pneumonia, the strategies to change this depressing fact have failed to work.

This is possibly because the emphasis in dealing with mal­nutrition has remained on providing nutrition and not enough on dealing with the environmental factors such as polluted water that contribute to the disease burden. If the government was waiting for more proof, one more report has been produced ­convincingly making the case for dealing with what it calls “the time bomb of increasing water pollution”. Water in India: Situation and Prospect, a report released recently by Unicef, documents the ugly reality of water pollution in India. It states that 70% of surface water and a growing amount of groundwater in India is contaminated by chemical, organic and inorganic, biological and toxic pollutants. This happens because untreated industrial effluents and municipal waste are dumped into water sources. Chemical pollution run-offs from agricultural fields as well as the high incidence of open defecation in rural areas are a further cause for contaminating groundwater in rural areas, often the only source of water for millions of residents.

The data on water pollution over the years has clearly indicated that the situation, far from improving, has become worse. Despite having pollution control boards around the country, a central pollution board based in New Delhi and a slew of laws that were formulated to deal with this problem, there appears to be no stopping the deterioration in water quality. The reasons are twofold. One, with a growing population especially in urban areas, municipalities are simply not equipped to deal with the quantity of waste that is generated – much of this is dumped untreated in landfills or in water bodies. And, two, these water bodies, especially rivers, are unable to dilute this massive quantity of contamination because their flows have reduced over time due to increased withdrawals as well as environmental deterioration upstream. These two factors together have made the biological contamination of our major rivers alarming.

The problem of untreated industrial effluents is equally worrisome. According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), out of 88 industrial clusters, 43 are “critically polluted”. In many cases, untreated industrial effluents continue to be dumped into the nearest water body, sometimes a river that also supplies water to urban residents. This heady mix of toxic chemicals is often the only source of water for the urban poor who do not have the capacity to treat the water before they consume it. As a result, the cycle of illness and death is played out, especially amongst children. Even interventions, such as feeding programmes, make little diff­erence to children who suffer continuous bouts of diarrhoea and other water-related diseases as well as pneumonia and worm infestations. No medical intervention can work in such a crisis. Data from urban slum settlements reveals that even though families have access to some form of medical care, and also are able to earn enough to feed their children, the incidence of malnutrition and stunting remains unacceptably high.

The strategy to deal with this pathetic state of affairs is so obvious as to barely need repetition. With growing urbanisation, it is imperative that investment is sought and found for waste treatment. It is simply unacceptable that a majority of domestic and municipal waste is released into waterbodies with minimal or no treatment. Similarly, it is unacceptable that an estimated 68.5 million cubic metres of industrial effluents are dumped untreated everyday into waterbodies despite the existence of pollution control boards that are tasked to check this. If penalties and the law are not sufficient to make these polluters pay, then there is reason to revise them and ensure that they are implemented. The problem in both instances is not necessarily funds or the absence of rules and regulations. It is the absence of political will that makes the health and survival of India’s children a high enough priority.


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