( This is a report evaluating the water and related concerns in 4 states of India – Bihar, Maharashtra, Odisha and Rajasthan. Every week a part of the report will be published.)
Author : Konica Sehgal
Apart from water coverage, bad quality water also affects the population in a significant way, which hampers their overall sustainability. Water quality can be interlinked to various issues in health, economic and social aspects of an individual.
Water quality in India has worsened due to over drafting of groundwater, geogenic contamination of surface water, insufficient mechanisms and technology to check water quality and minimal attention paid to water quality issues, over the years. In reference to the aforementioned states; Bihar, Odisha, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, the current water quality status in these states is given in figure 1.
Figure 1: No. of quality-affected habitations in the following four states
Source: Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (http://indiawater.gov.in/imisreports/Reports/Physical/rpt_RWS_TargetAchievement_S.aspx?Rep=0&RP=Y&APP=IMIS)
Arsenic, Fluoride and Iron are the three contaminants prevalent in Bihar with 13 districts having more than permissible limit of arsenic (>50 ppm), 11 with more than permissible limit of fluoride (1.5mg/l) and 9 districts with more than 1mg/l.
Figure 2: No. of districts from Odisha, Maharashtra and Rajasthan affected with various contaminations
There are two types of contaminants: anthropogenic and geo-genic. Anthropogenic contamination is when the contamination at the source and in the groundwater is due to human activities while geo-genic contamination is naturally occurring in the water. Arsenic, fluoride, salinity is therefore characterized as geogenic while nitrate contamination is both an anthropogenic as well as geogenic contaminant. The aquifer system in India is divided into 14 principal aquifer systems where each contaminant can be given an aquifer wise distribution.
The most widespread contamination in India is that of fluoride. It is widely prevalent in different parts of India like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan. 50-100% of districts have access to drinking water, which has excess level of fluoride. Almost all the different aquifer systems are contaminated with some level of fluoride due to rock-water interaction.
The second most widespread contaminant in India is arsenic, and the states with large portions affected with arsenic contamination are West Bengal and Bihar. This contamination occurs in alluvial aquifers. The alluvial aquifers of Indo Gangetic plain, which encompasses most of the northern India, southern Nepal, East Pakistan and Bangladesh, has been found to be highly contaminated in arsenic and salinity. Some scientists however disagree with arsenic totally being a result of geo-genic process and say that burning coal and usage of fertilizers result in arsenic contamination of ground water as well.
Salinity does not cause any serious health effects as compared to the other geo-genially occurring contaminants. It is distributed majorly in western, north western and southern parts of India. It has been found in almost every aquifer system but is mainly confined to alluvium, granite, schist, shale and also in Deccan traps and limestone.
Nitrate occurrence can be both geo-genic and anthropogenic in nature. Atmospheric nitrogen reacts with water to fall down as rain. Nitrogen is also released during decomposition of plants, faeces etc. It is leached in the groundwater also due to excessive use of fertilizers. Much of irrigation water used has excess of nitrate, which enters our food cycle through consumption of crops grown in such areas. High nitrate content is also seen because of inadequate sanitation practises across rural India.
Fluoride in excess of the permissible limit is very harmful for the body and can cause dental fluorosis. It can also cause a skeletal fluorosis, a crippling bone deformity. The population at risk as per population in habitations with high fluoride is 11.7 million as on 1.4.2014 with Rajasthan witnessing the highest no. of fluorosis cases of all states as on 1.4.2014. For every 1000 people in rural Rajasthan, 77 people are affected with fluorosis. National Programme has released 4157 lakhs for Prevention and Control of Fluorosis since its inception of which 75% of the funds lay unutilized (data as on 1.04.2014). Human system is very sensitive to arsenic. Excessive ingestion of arsenic can cause keratosis i.e. hardening of skin and formation of warts and corns on the palm and the sole. Anaemia and leukopenia are other common effects of arsenic poisoning. Assam tops the list of the arsenic affected states.
The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has launched the National Water Quality Sub-Mission (NWQSM) on 22nd March 2017 to provide safe drinking water to about 28,000 arsenic and fluoride affected habitations. During current financial year 2017-18 under NRDWP, Rs.1000 Crore have been earmarked for NWQSM on arsenic and fluoride.
Salinity does not critically effect human health but can damage crops and affect plant growth.
Further, other water borne diseases caused by bacterial infestation in water worsen the state. Therefore, water quality remains in a sorry state in rural India where people suffer both due to geo-genic and anthropogenic factors as well as due to consequential effects of factors like poor sanitation, low hygiene, insufficient eradicative technologies etc.
Figure 3: State/UT wise cases due to water borne diseases -Cholera, Diarrhoea, Typhoid and Viral Hepatitis
 Source: Answer to Question 3296 Lok Sabha dated 1.08.2014
The water-borne disease burden in one year has significantly decreased only for Bihar and Odisha over a period of one year, but a similar trend cannot be observed for the states of Maharashtra and Rajasthan.
The permissible and acceptable limits of the four main contaminants according to National and International Organisations are as follows:
Table 5: Drinking Standard Guidelines
Source: Concept Note on geogenic contamination of ground water in India-CGWB, Govt. of India (http://www.cgwb.gov.in/WQ/Geogenic%20Final.pdf)
Although BIS clearly mentions the acceptable limit of the contaminants, the permissible limits are conveniently followed and acceptable limits are not considered.
Every person has a right to water as adequate potable water ensures the right to life. These water issues in India have eroded the development; we could have achieved in past years. Insufficient water infrastructure has indirect linkages with productivity of men and women in rural India. A high amount of time of day is spent in fetching water from miles away or standing in long queues. In Jalamkata Village, Nuapada District, Odisha, 1 hand pump serves 2000 people with at least 50 women standing in a queue at a given point of time. As per a report by UNICEF, women and girls collectively spend 200 million hours per day in fetching water. Clearly, the opportunity cost of lack of piped water to households falls disproportionately on women and girls so much so that it can take a girl’s time away from her education or even prevent her from attending school altogether. Thus, insufficient water infrastructure is both a cause and effect of a static life. A study by Josephine Fogden and Geoffrey Wood, CASS Business School of London, hypothesizes that there is a positive relation between percentage of population having access to safe drinking water and GDP per capita. They further regress that the percentage of GDP per capita growth will be zero when only 73.4 % of the world population have access to safe drinking water. The percentage of population having access to safe drinking water would increase and then decline over the years and reach the original level by 2050. The price of water will increase, making it less affordable for the poor, labour costs will increase, problem of water contamination if not controlled will induce hazardous diseases hampering investment in education and other development issues, in turn haltering growth. Weak interlinkages between rural and urban sector due to insufficient rural water infrastructure, unequivocally, will lead to an unbalanced growth leading to unequal distribution of income further encouraging inequality.
Lack of Sanitation is one of the major issues, which have grabbed rural India in its paws. One of the major cause factors is the insufficient water supply to each of the households in the villages. We see that insufficient water supply is directly correlated with the level of sanitation in the state. Bihar, where only 6.09% of habitations are covered under PWS schemes, also has the highest percentage of people (76%) practicing open defecation only after Odisha. There are no toilets and many built remain dysfunctional resulting from no or irregular supply of water. Contaminated water further depletes a human’s healthy life and hampers his development. Accessibility of improved water sources and sanitation are primary steps in poverty alleviation and economic prosperity. This is also a key roadblock in achieving SDG goals, especially in India where only 16% of rural India has access to piped water with 67% of the population lives and national poverty figure stands at 29.8%. One effect on water availability, which is often neglected, is that of climate change, true that, as the primary objective in the developing world is still that of availability and quality. As per IPCC assessment reports, average temperature of India is bound to increase by 1-5οC by the end of 21st century and average precipitation will increase by 0-20% in the same period. This can be foreseen as higher vulnerability and higher climatic variability with frequent occurrences of floods and droughts. This exogenous shock will affect everything from ground water level to surface water and consequently alter the already in place water infrastructure. Looking beyond availability and focusing on long-term sustainability should be the goal. Another social problem, which is intertwined with rural water infrastructure, is that of gender bias.
 Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBb4rlb9e4Q
 Source: https://www.unicef.org/media/media_92690.html
 Source: Access to safe drinking water and its impact on global economic growth; https://faculty.washington.edu/categ/healthanddevgbf/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Access-to-Safe-Drinking-Water.pdf