Time-bound plan needed to address contaminated water

  • Contamination of groundwater with chemicals like arsenic and fluoride is an important issue in several states of India. Even though government has schemes to address the problem not much has been achieved.
  • Authorities have been repeatedly told that efforts on war-footing are needed to protect millions of Indians from the contaminated groundwater but the work is yet to acquire the pace needed.
  • The parliamentary standing committee on rural development has now asked the central government to devise a time-bound action plan to supply clean drinking water to areas affected with contaminated water.

Groundwater in over 25,000 habitations across India is contaminated with excess arsenic and fluoride levels. To address the issue, a parliamentary committee has now asked the Union Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS) to devise a time-bound plan to achieve the target of supplying clean drinking water to the contaminated areas.

In India, 15,811 habitations are affected by arsenic and 9,660 habitations are affected by fluoride, said the central government’s Minister of State for Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation Ramesh Chandappa Jigajinagi while replying to a query in parliament in December 2018.

Of the 15,811 habitations affected by high arsenic levels, 13,577 (about 85 percent) are in West Bengal (9,250) and Assam (4,327) alone. As far as fluoride-affected habitations are concerned, of the 9,660, Rajasthan has the most with 5,176 habitations followed by West Bengal with 1,263 habitations.  

Last year, in March 2018, the parliamentary standing committee on rural development expressed concern on arsenic and fluoride contamination in drinking water in many habitations and asked the union ministry of drinking water and sanitation (MDWS) to take steps on “war footing” for a solution, stating that the “pace of work” to address the issue is “extremely slow”, leading to more habitations being affected.

In response to committee’s concerns, the drinking water ministry, in July 2018, noted that “rural drinking water is a state subject” and the technical and financial support it already provides to the states under the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) can be utilised for tackling drinking water quality problems with priority to arsenic and fluoride affected habitations.

The parliamentary committee, led by All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader P. Venugopal, in its March 2018 report had also noted that “until and unless the habitations affected by contamination are provided with adequate piped water supply, the habitations will keep on reeling under the adverse effects of contamination.”

Arsenic is a carcinogenic element and is associated with skin, lung, bladder, kidney and liver cancer. Excess consumption of fluorides through drinking water and food over a prolonged period can cause health related disorders like dental, skeletal and non-skeletal fluorosis, besides inducing ageing.

According to the Bureau of Indian Standards in its IS 10500-2012 standards, the acceptable limit of arsenic in drinking water is 0.01 milligram per litre (permissible limit in absence of alternate source is 0.05 mg/l) and for fluoride is 1 milligram per litre (permissible limit in absence of alternate source is 1.5 mg/l).

As per August 2016 data, a population of about 21 million in over 23,500 habitations were affected by arsenic and fluoride contaminated groundwater.

Implement a time bound plan to provide clean water

The issue of contaminated water was brought up once again recently by the parliamentary committee in its latest report which was presented in the parliament on December 31, 2018.

“The committee in their recommendation had specifically asked the ministry to ensure that all the states provide piped water supply to the contaminated habitations. In their action-taken reply, the ministry had informed the committee that they have advised the states to tackle water quality affected habitations in rural areas by Piped Water Supply (PWS) Schemes using safe water sources,” noted the latest report.

But since PWS schemes take nearly three to four years to commission, the ministry had also advised the states to install community water purification plants in identified quality-affected rural habitations.

Groundwater in over 25,000 habitations in India is affected by high arsenic and fluoride levels. Photo by Suhasajgaonkar/Wikimedia Commons.

The committee appreciated the steps taken by the drinking water ministry but said that “piped water supply is the only solution to tackle water quality issues and, therefore, a time bound plan is needed to be put in operation to achieve the target to supply clean water to the contaminated areas.”

It reiterated that the drinking water ministry, “must take up the matter with the state governments till the piped water supply reaches each household, arrangement should be made to provide alternate supply of clean water by way of installing community water purification plants (CWPPs) in identified contaminated affected rural habitations on priority basis and also expedite the process of supply of piped water and apprise the committee in this regard”.

Focus on arsenic and fluoride affected areas

In March 2017, the drinking water ministry launched the National Water Quality Sub-Mission (NWQSM) under the NRDWP which focused on providing safe drinking water to arsenic and fluoride affected habitations “over a span of four years, subject to availability of funds”. The total expenditure for the sub-mission was estimated at Rs. 25,000 crore (Rs. 250 billion) and of that, Rs. 12,500 crore (Rs. 125 billion) was to be provided by the central government starting from financial year 2017-18.

A year earlier, with a focus on dealing with arsenic and fluoride contamination, Indian government had released another Rs. 1,000 crores (Rs. 10 billion), in March 2016, for commissioning of CWPPs and last mile connectivity of piped water supply schemes.

Satish Sinha, who is an associate director with Toxics Link, however, questioned the efforts of the government and municipalities to provide safe drinking water to people. He stated that the government is not doing enough and it should be looking at available technologies to address the issue of contamination.   

“I think the effort has not been adequate.” said Sinha. “If you can’t make safe water available to people then what are you doing? Where is the action, plan or vision?” he questioned.


Banner image: A parliamentary committee feels a time-bound effort is required to tackle the issue. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay India.


Read more: A simple, low-cost filter in Assam that removes arsenic and iron from water



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