Often, when a doctor talks about water, the discussions focus on the purity of water, rather the lack of it, and its implications, such as water- borne diseases. This report attempts to raise a few issues, related to water quality and its role in the transmission of diseases, but also from a larger public health perspective.
At the outset we need to remember the fact that the very need to purify water reflects the degraded nature of the environment and the state of our natural resources. It is also important to point out that while the quality of water is crucial, the amounts of water available, as well as the ease of access are crucial aspects of 'water security'.
By and large ground water, from wells and springs etc., is pure and potable. The water that seeps into the soil is purified by filtration and soil microorganisms. Many villages even today continue to survive quite comfortably with such available water. However two major sources have contaminated large tracts of water, turning what was once a life-giving natural resource into a health hazard. These are human and other animal fecal contamination of water on the one hand and industrial pollution on the other.
The other major source of contamination of water, rendering it unpotable, is industrial pollution. It is not unusual for factories to flout safety regulations in the pursuit of profit. One only has to visit the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) in Cuddalore in northern Tamil Nadu to realize that. in India, an industrial polluter is never brought to book.
The water coming out of hand pumps installed in villages adjoining the SIPCOT complex has an orange tinge to it, clearly showing the effluents from the complex are taking a toll of the groundwater sources in the region.
And it is that water all villagers in the neighborhood have to use for all their drinking water needs. One can easily imagine the long-term impact of such polluted water on the health of the villagers, but neither the promoters of the industries nor the regulatory authorities seem to bother too very much about such a situation.
Actually communities have evolved water storage and purification systems over several generations, and the importance of this purification was appreciated after the introduction of water distribution systems in urban areas, during the time of the industrial revolution.
Alongside conservation, even water purification was sought to be achieved through simple and cost-effective methods.
One of the most common methods we are aware of is boiling. The basic method involves bringing the water to a boiling point and then continuing to keep the water on a 'rolling boil' for 20 minutes.
Modernization has rendered such a commonsense approach unaffordable. Boiling has become time-, energy- and money - consuming, especially for the lower middle class daily wage and landless labourer, and even for the financially stressed and stretched middle class homemaker.
Bottled water has come to be seen as an attractive option - but there is always the question of quality assurance. Given the mushrooming of numerous private factories, regulating these is going to be very difficult. More over most suppliers keep switching the producers, so there is really little we can do to monitor quality.
Besides, water from private providers is a commercial venture, and therefore they have no obligation to the poor and needy. There is no accountability either.
Apart from these there is the increasingly popular 'Aquaguard' which is based on a UV ray- based purification method. More recently some companies have introduced systems for 'non- running' water. These are obviously based on research - but only time and experience and continuous monitoring will tell us about their efficacy and their performance in varied Indian conditions.
There have been numerous other innovations in facilitating home- based water purification - all based on the fact that microbiologically it has been established that at 60 F itself, microorganisms are inactivated and thus the water becomes safe.
One such scientifically done project was conducted in the Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore In that experiment, impure water kept in common plastic bottle, one side of which is painted in black in order to enable it to absorb heat and then the bottle is placed atop a roof for a specified time. That way micro-organisms are inactivated.
Another variation was attempted by the Foundation of Medical Research, Mumbai and the Foundation for Research in Community Health, Pune. What they did was to keep glass bottles containing water on the embers of earthen choolah after cooking is done for the day or even by the side of the choolah during cooking, again achieving the same purpose of neutralizing micro-organisms.
The point is there are any number of such inexpensive ways of purifying water available. For its part, the Jan Swasthya Sahayog in Bilaspur, Chattisgarh has developed an innovative system of a UV- based purification of a bucket of water that can be operated by a battery which, in turn, can be charged by cycle pedals. Similarly the Comprehensive Rural Health Project in Jamkhed, Maharashtra has come up with a filtering system that provides microbiologically pure potable water.
All these systems are innovative, and are quite low cost, and are eminently feasible for most households. But while they are all definitely useful strategies, each of them needs to be evaluated for the specific circumstances in which they are to be used. One cannot get away from the fact that the solution to the problem is really the prevention of water pollution in the first place and its provision in adequate quantities, equitably.
A truly permanent solution needs to be based on the provision of 'water security' to ALL based not only on the provision of quantity and microbiological quality, but on of a holistic approach to water from the point of view of watershed, its uses, its storage, its equitable distribution and prevention of pollution and contamination of these ground water bodies. In such a solution, water is not envisaged as a marketable commodity, but as the very "basis of life".
Dr. Rakhal Gaitonde
Community Health Cell
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