Contamination, especially in North Chennai, biggest problem

If you thought scarcity was Chennai’s biggest problem with water, then think again. A recent study showed about 44 per cent of people in the city are pretty unhappy about the quality of water they get; they say drinking unhealthy water was the main reason for falling sick.

Nation-wide survey

A nation-wide survey “Kya Aapka Paani Beemar hai” reveals that all is not well with Chennai water, and scarcity of water is just one of the many issues that the residents have. The study, by Eureka Forbes and GFK, aimed at assessing how increasing levels of water contamination and unavailability of safe drinking water affected families and individuals in the country. About 193 households were interviewed in Chennai.

Five in ten respondents in Chennai expressed their belief that they were not drinking healthy water, or that their water was not appropriate for consumption, and seven out of ten said contamination is the biggest problem with drinking water. Despite this, and surprisingly, nearly one tenth of city households still drink water directly through taps, according to the survey.

According to a WHO classification, about 40 per cent of all diseases are water borne.

“Water contamination can cause both acute and chronic diseases – including cholera, diarrhoea, typhoid, dystentry, hepatitis A, and chemical poisoning with arsenic, lead and fluoride,” explains S.Elango, former Director of Public Health of the State. Besides the more simple upset stomach, continuous consumption of such contaminated water can ruin the gastrointestinal system and also have an impact on kidneys and the liver over the long term.

The problems can occur within hours, days, or a week or so, in acute cases, he adds.

“No government can afford to ignore the issue of poor quality of water. It is the cause of repeated and serious ailments. In fact, it is the duty of every local government to ensure that clean, safe drinking water is provided to its residents,” Dr. Elango says. Contamination of water in north Chennai, where cases of petrochemical contamination in tap water is a very serious issue, must be addressed immediately, he adds.

As far as the State goes, most urban centres and towns use more of surface water, while in rural areas the dependence is greater on borewells, and other sources of groundwater. Since surface water is stored over a long period of time, the natural process of purification takes over initially. However, in the second stage, artificial and mechanical water purification will have to be done in order to reduce the possibility of contamination.

While the study has not touched on this, one of the key contaminants is faecal matter. A simple test – the presumptive coliform test – will indicate the level of faecal matter in water, and there are other standards for permissible levels of total dissolved salts, chlorides, hardness, turbidity and minerals, say water experts. When the total chemical content is over the accepted levels, then that water cannot be used at all.

The Public Health department runs five regional water testing centres, including the one at the King Institute of Preventive Medicine, Guindy, where samples can be sent there to test for quality.

Packaged drinking water

The most worrying aspect of all, Dr. Elango says, is the great paradigm in the way water is being supplied over the last decade. “Till 1980, there was hardly any packaged drinking water. But today, clearly, the private sector is slowly drawing away potable water from cities’ reserves. The government should bring in checks to prevent commercial exploitation of a natural resource,” Dr. Elango adds.